Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 31, 2020

Are Police Officers Racist? Like the Nature of Racism Itself, the Answer is Complicated

by Brett Pelham
Officer looks at other officers arresting a man

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

In the past couples of months, there seems to have been a sea change in the attitudes of many Americans about racism and police brutality.  In the wake of several shootings of unarmed Black men—and particularly after the slow strangulation of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 (captured in painful detail on smartphone video)—many Americans are asking difficult questions about the American police system.  

One of the simplest and most important questions is this: Are the police racist?  This seemingly simple question has a very complex answer. The gist of it is that, in some ways, police officers do seem to be more racist than the general public—while in others, they seem to be less so.     

To my knowledge, the best survey to address the broad question of whether police are more racially biased than other U.S adults was a highly representative Pew Research Center survey of about 8,000 active-duty police officers and about 4,500 U.S. adults.  Both surveys were conducted in the spring and summer of 2016, and the details of the survey (such as identical question wording) allowed fair comparisons between the opinions of police officers and those of the general public. 

As a group, police officers often believed that racism no longer exists in America. The U.S. public—especially the Black U.S. public—often disagreed.  

Consider one of the most straightforward survey questions about race and racism. That question asked whether “our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.” A surprising 92% of White American police officers endorsed this statement, suggesting that they believe racism is a thing of the past.  Only six percent of White police officers disagreed, acknowledging that there is still the need to combat racism (2% were unsure).  Among Black police officers, 69% acknowledged a lack of equal rights.  But among the White general public, 41% (still a minority, but a much larger one) acknowledged a lack of equal rights in America. Among the Black public, 84% said so.  It is hard to digest such findings and avoid the conclusion that, on average, police officers are even more racist than the rest of us. 

On the other hand, the possibility that police officers are more racist than the average American does not mean that the job of police officer should be eliminated. Psychologist Steven Pinker has cogently argued that one of the biggest reasons why human beings kill one another at much lower rates today than they did at about any other time in human history is because of modern police forces (and the associated “rule of law”).  In the 1700s, the annual homicide rate in what became the United Sates was about 30 per 100,000 people.  Apparently, the founding fathers found a lot of reasons to kill one another. This value dropped to 20 per 100,000 by 1800 and dropped again to about 10 per 100,000 in 1900.  In 2018, the annual U.S. homicide rate, high profile mass school shootings included, had dropped further to about 5 per 100,000.  Most progressives thus realize that police officers do an important job.  But they foresee a better potential future in which police officers take a kinder, gentler approach to maintaining public safety.        

If there is good evidence that police officers misunderstand racism, there is also good evidence that the public misunderstands police officers. This is how the Pew Foundation’s Rich Morin and Andrew Mercer summarize the public’s view of what police officers do in the line of duty:

Many Americans believe it is common for police officers to fire their guns. About three-in-ten adults estimate that police fire their weapons a few times a year while on duty, and more than eight-in-ten (83%) estimate that the typical officer has fired his or her service weapon at least once in their careers, outside of firearms training or on a gun range…   

But the same survey that I just mentioned asked police officers whether they had ever fired their guns in the line of duty.  Only 27% reported having done so.  That’s correct. Fully 73% reported that they had never fired their guns.  Clearly, the American public believes that U.S. police officers are much more trigger-happy than they really are.  That’s a pretty large anti-police stereotype.

Getting back to police officers rather than stereotypes about them, there is some reason to believe that police officers may be better behaved than you and I might be in a life-or-death shooting situation.  Consider a study that directly compared discrimination in police officers with discrimination in the citizens who police officers are asked to protect.  In response to police shootings that occurred more than two decades ago, Joshua Correll and colleagues devised a clever way to assess “the police officer’s dilemma.” When you see a Black man holding a small shiny object that might be a handgun, what should you do?  Of course, you have only milliseconds to make your decision. 

Correll and his colleagues found that when college students played a video game that placed them in this dilemma, they shot Black men more quickly than they shot White men. They were also more likely to shoot Black men holding a cell phone than to shoot White men holding a cell phone.  They also pulled the trigger more quickly on Black targets than on White targets.  This same anti-Black shooting bias shows up in non-student populations.  Such studies reveal an unconscious, and presumably unintended, anti-Black bias. 

But in a follow-up study, Correll and his colleagues went even further.  They used this “shooter paradigm” to compare police officers with regular people—in fact, people who were from the same neighborhoods that these police officers patrolled.  Both police officers and regular citizens were racially biased in their shooting decisions: they shot Blacks more often than Whites under exactly the same circumstances. 

But, on what was arguably the most important measure—the simple shoot / don’t shoot decisions—the police officers were less biased than the community sample—not more so.  In other words, police officers do show an unconscious racially biased shooting tendency.  But on the whole, this tendency is weaker, not stronger, than the same tendency as measured in regular U.S. citizens.

On the subtler reaction time measures that assessed how quickly people fired at the suspicious person, the police officers and the non-officers were about equally biased.  Police officers don’t have a monopoly on racism.  Racism seems to be so pervasive that the citizens that police officers are asked to serve and protect are just as biased as police officers, if not more so.  

Of course, no one study can end the debate about an important question like racism. But this study does clarify that most important questions do not have simple answers. The simple answer to the question of whether racism exists in America is yes.  The more complex questions about racism in America include questions such as why, when, where, and what we are going to do about it.      

Post-script (added on September 14, 2020)

Some readers of the blog above have questioned whether social psychology has anything to contribute to the problem of police prejudice. For example, some have insisted that the answer to the title's question, "Are police officers racist?" is an obvious "yes!" and that we don’t need research to answer it.  Others have noted that research findings are too inconsistent to provide an answer anyway. I would like to make a couple of points about these reactions.

First, as a behavioral scientist, I know that the answers we get to any question depend on how we ask it.  Racism is not one simple thing.  And systemic racism, by definition, is more complex than a single racist act or attitude.  Systemic racism has many manifestations, from school funding to race-based gerrymandering and voter ID laws.  Likewise, there are people who harbor deep prejudices against some racial groups while fully accepting others. So, the answer to the question of who is more racist than whom depends largely on what one means by "racist."  Any 800-word discussion of racism will have to oversimplify this complex topic.       

This means that, even if we find that police officers as a group score in what I consider a highly racist direction on particular measures, it is not fair to say that all police officers are racist—or to say that endorsing that one racist belief means a person (officer or not) is racist through and through. Furthermore, research shows that virtually everyone harbors at least some racist beliefs and tendencies. No one can completely escape all forms of racism.

Finally, if I may make this response personal rather than empirical, allow me to note that I have a nephew who is a police officer.  This may bias my view in favor of the police.  But I also have an uncle who may have been killed by the police. (Some police officers were certainly happy to see him dead.)  I also have a brother who was beaten badly by the police—on two occasions; it is a miracle that he is alive. I grew up fearing the police, not admiring them.  So, my own attitudes about the police—like the many question we can ask about police prejudice—are also complicated.   


For Further Reading

Correl, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1314-1329.

Correl, J., Park, B, Judd, C.M., Wittenbrink, B., Sadler, M.S., & Keesee, T. (2007). Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1006-1023.

 

Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies implicit social cognition, racism, and identity. He is also an associate editor at Character and Context.  

 

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