Why Implicit Bias Matters in Police-Involved Shootings


Over the past year, stories of black men being shot and killed by police have filled local and national headlines. In these events, police officers are often quick to explain that race was not a factor in their decision to shoot their victims; they swear they are not racists. And yet, black (and Native American) men continue to be shot and killed by police at much higher rates than any other segment of society.

That’s where the concept of implicit bias comes in. While the individual officer may or may not be explicitly racist, even police officers are not immune to the affects of systemic racism on their subconscious.

Chris Mooney explains more in his Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men“:

A good start may simply be making people aware of just how unconsciously biased they can be. That’s particularly critical in law enforcement, where implicit biases can lead to tragic outcomes.

In fact, this phenomenon has been directly studied in the lab, particularly through first-person shooter tests, where subjects must rapidly decide whether to shoot individuals holding either guns or harmless objects like wallets and soda cans. Research suggests that police officers…are much more accurate at the general task (not shooting unarmed people) than civilians, thanks to their training. But like civilians, police are considerably slower to press the “don’t shoot” button for an unarmed black man than they are for an unarmed white man—and faster to shoot an armed black man than an armed white man.

Such research has led to initiatives like the Fair and Impartial Policing program, which has trained officers across the United States on how implicit biases work and how to control them. Few officers look forward to these trainings, says program founder Lorie Fridell, a criminologist; they don’t consider themselves to be racist. “Police are very defensive about this issue,” she says. “That’s because we have been dealing with this issue using outdated science. We treat them as if they have an explicit bias. They are offended by that.”

So instead, Fridell’s team focuses first on showing the officers the subtle ways in which implicit bias might influence their actions…The program, which receives support from the US Department of Justice, has trained officers in more than 250 precincts and agencies…

…The feedback is encouraging. “I have a new awareness of bias-based policing within my own agency,” one participant wrote in an evaluation. “The presentation of scientific data provided me with a more convincing argument that supported the existence of unintentional, but widespread racial bias, which I was typically quick to dismiss.”

To read the rest of Mooney’s article, click here.

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