Public Release: 

Police officers' racial bias can be eliminated

Although police officers are more likely to wrongfully shoot certain races, they can overcome this tendency.

Association for Psychological Science

On March 15, 2003 in Shreveport, Louisiana, a 25-year-old black man was shot to death by police who mistook the cell phone he was carrying for a weapon. No one can be certain whether race was a factor in the tragic death, but previous research shows that people's expectations about whether another person is holding a weapon are influenced by that person's race. New research in the March issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, shows that extensive training with a computer simulation can eliminate this racial bias.

Authors E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche, both of Florida State University, studied 50 police officers from Florida using a computer simulation in which a gun or a neutral object (a wallet or a cell phone) was superimposed onto a white or black face. The police officers then had to choose to shoot or not to shoot by pressing a designated key.

The earlier trials revealed that the officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot at an unarmed black suspect than at an unarmed white suspect. "However, on a more promising note, after extensive exposure to the program, the officers were able to eliminate this bias," the authors state. In later trials, officers were more accurate in their decisions to fire at suspects of either race due to their more accurate detection of weapons.

The authors stated, "These findings have important implications for both the elimination of racial biases in general and the training of police officers more specifically." The authors suggest future work to test whether elimination of racial bias on the computer simulation generalizes to actual decision making in the field. If so, "training on such simulations may provide an important tool for improving overall accuracy in police officers' decisions to shoot."

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For more information, contact E. Ashby Plant at plant@psy.fsu.edu.

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.

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