A controversial study found that cops more readily shoot white than black individuals — at least in video simulations.
Participants in the study— conducted by professors from Washington State University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis — were placed in front of a simulator and given unloaded, laser-equipped Glock pistols. They were instructed to shoot at any individual who appeared armed in the footage, which included realistic scenes of vehicle stops and domestic disturbances.
The 100 participants — 85 percent of them white — hesitated longer to shoot at black individuals than whites, and were far more likely to fire at unarmed whites than blacks. Thirty-six of the participants were cops — and they were 25 times as likely to shoot a white person in the simulation than a black individual. The civilian participants shot at whites about five times as often as blacks.
"The results suggest that the tide of public opinion that police are racist might not be true," head researcher Lois James told VICE News. James admitted that the sample size wasn't large enough to prove a trend, but she said the findings are still noteworthy.
"It seems to suggest there is some other cognitive thing going on interrupting decision to shoot — it could be fear of consequences, of public backlash, of administrative headache, and I'd hope awareness of the mistreatment of minorities throughout history in this country," James, a research assistant professor at Washington State University, said. "Something is making them more cautious and more hesitant to shoot black suspects than white suspects."
The results from this study — conducted in 2010 and published recently in the Journal of Experimental Criminology — contradict previous research in the field. But James said earlier studies asked participants to push a button rather than pull the trigger on a weapon, and featured less realistic video footage.
"Our participants were armed with once-real weapons and responding to very realistic and arousing scenarios," James explained. She suggested that previous research spoke to "subconscious, implicit biases."
James' research also included a subconscious component, in which the physiological responses of participants were monitored. Their anxiety levels tended to increase when presented with a black individual on the screen compared to how they reacted to whites.
"When a black suspect appeared on screen they had a far stronger threat response," she said. "But despite these subconscious reactions they actually still took longer to shoot suspects."
James speculated that a higher percentage of black individuals are victims of officer-involved violence because of "systemic racism" that affords blacks fewer economic and educational opportunities.
"There's an unarguable problem that minorities are overrepresented in officer-involved shootings," James said. "That's why researchers such as myself want to understand what's going on."
Horace Cooper, a fellow with the National Leadership Network of Black Conservatives, told VICE News the results "were not surprising." He argued that officers were indeed more hesitant to target black individuals because of the potential public scrutiny their actions might attract.
But many activists slammed the study as misleading and distracting from a national crisis of police discrimination. Christi Griffin, founder and director of the Ethics Project, a nonprofit social justice organization, told VICE News that real-life incidents have revealed, "almost zero tolerance of African American men who are unarmed."
"A plethora of video exists that show police officers spending minutes, if not longer, talking down white men who are clearly armed, and spending seconds shooting to kill unarmed African American teenagers," Griffin said. "Many videos exist where the officers is clearly trying to set up audio evidence telling the African American victim of harassment to 'Take your hand off my gun,' or 'Stop resisting arrest' when video evidence shows the victims clearly are not."
The ACLU has also shared data that counters the claim that police are more hesitant to target black individuals. A stop-and-frisk report on Boston, for instance, showed that cops were more likely to initiate encounters in predominantly black neighborhoods and with black individuals, even controlling for crime rates. And a report on low-level arrests in Minneapolis showed that blacks were more than 16 times more likely to be arrested for loitering than whites.
"These arrests are purely subjective and therefore prone to the abusive exercise of officer discretion," Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU's Minnesota affiliate, said in a statement that accompanied the Minneapolis report. In certain counties in the US, black individuals are arrested 10 times more frequently than other groups, a recent USA Today analysis showed.
Griffin insisted that the recent study was a waste of time and funds because contrary evidence is already so clear in the real world.
"Why, with all the empirical evidence that exists via actual video and statistics," Griffen said, "why is money being spent to research hypothetical simulations?"
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman
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