Hit & Run
Police officers keep claiming that they genuinely thought their unarmed victims had lethal weapons. Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, claims in his grand jury testimony that Brown put his right hand “under his shirt in his waistband” and then lunged at him—153 feet away. Yet Michael Brown did not have a gun, instead he was shot 7 times, with the last shot being lethal.
Just last Monday, Ohio police officers shot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old African-American child, because they thought his fake “airsoft”-type pellet gun was an actual gun. In August, Ohio police officers gunned down an unarmed African-American customer in a Wal-mart talking on his cell phone who had picked up a pellet gun, out of its package, that was sitting on the shelf. The special prosecutor, who argued the case in front of a grand jury who did not indict any police officer, tried to explain at a later press conference:
"The law says police officers are judged by what is in their mind at the time…You have to put yourself in their shoes at that time with the information they had."
Academic research, however, tells us that more than a police officer’s conscious intentions may influence their judgments and actions. University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Payne (2001) conducted an experiment finding research participants were more likely to mis-identify a hand tool as a gun when they had to respond quickly immediately after being shown the face of an African-American male rather than a Caucasian male. Particularly, white and male respondents were faster to identify guns when “primed” with a black fact versus a white face.
This suggests that police officers like Daren Wilson may have genuinely believed their lives were threatened, and acted accordingly—but that their conclusions were unduly influenced by their own stereotypes.
But there is hope. Payne also found that an individual’s personal desire to overcome prejudice—to not feel it or express it—moderated the effect of racial bias on categorizing tools or guns. For instance, those who were more likely to agree with statements like, “I get angry with myself when I have a thought or feeling that might be considered prejudiced,” or “It’s never acceptable to express one’s prejudices” were significantly less likely to implicitly allow their own stereotypes to influence their performance in the experiment