In Brief

Police officers trained in "shoot, don't shoot" scenarios can overcome inherent racial biases and avoid the unnecessary use of deadly force, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 6) reveals.

The results show that racial bias effects the cognitive processing time as officers decided to shoot or not shoot in a potentially deadly situation, but that training helped them overcome that bias and make the correct decision, as compared to a control group of local residents, says Joshua Correll, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

"Training doesn't reduce bias in reaction times, but it eliminates bias in the errors," Correll says.

The question of whether police are quicker to use deadly force when dealing with minorities is an important one for social psychology, given how shootings such as that of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant shot and killed by plainclothes New York City police in 1999, cause tensions between police departments and minority communities, he says.

In previous research, Correll and his fellow researchers showed that non-police participants would "shoot" an armed black man more quickly than an armed white man, and were much more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black man. Correll posits that even if people believe they are not biased, they are more likely to associate racial minorities with danger as a result of our cultures movies, television shows and media coverage.

In the recent research, Correll tested how bias would affect police officers response, compared to a community sample. Working with patrol officers from the Denver Police Department and local people renewing drivers licenses, Correll devised a scenario in which participants were randomly shown images of armed or unarmed white or black men and were given two options: push a button labeled "shoot" or a second labeled "don't shoot."

Researchers took photographs of 50 men, of whom half were white and half were black, in poses holding handguns or a non-threatening object like a cell phone, then "Photoshopped" the images into 20 otherwise unpopulated background scenes, such as a city park or the facade of an apartment building. Participants were told to shoot armed subjects as quickly as possible, and hit the "don't shoot" button as quickly as possible if the subjects were unarmed. The researchers then measured how long it took for participants to decide and the number of errors they made.

Compared to the civilian control group, police officers were less likely to make a biased decision, and more likely to decide correctly, he says. Police were also less likely to shoot in general. Police trainees put through simulated building searchesin which actors sometimes pose as assailants who attack the trainees with weapons loaded with non-lethal ammunitionwere especially conservative about pulling the trigger, regardless of the race of the target.

In future research, Correll says he wants to study what type of training is most effective at helping police officers choose to use deadly force correctly, and he is particularly interested in training situations that replicate the real-life conditions of fear, noise and confusion faced by police. Preliminary evidence shows that officers placed in training scenarios that simulate the situations they might encounter while on patrol are less willing to open fire, he says.

"Police with that kind of training showed a less trigger-happy orientation, with no difference in accuracy," he says.

-C. Munsey