A recent study has determined that cops are less likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects because they may fear repercussions.
But the “surprising results” was based on cops shooting at a simulator screen, knowing they were being tested.
But at a time when black people are protesting nationwide against police brutality, it’s understandable why Lois James, assistant research professor at Washington State University-Spokane, who lead the study, would try to put a pro-cop spin on it.
‘What it suggests that when faced with black suspects, there is something going on that is making some kind of pause or hesitation. What we think it might be is the fear of consequence,’ Dr James said.
Dr James said those consequences could be moral – or they could be fear of backlash, either public brouhaha, criminal charges or departmental discipline.
‘There’s a history systemic racism in the US and there are still irrefutable facts about the treatment of some groups of people in the criminal justice system that I’m sure weigh very heavily on a lot of officers,’ she said.
Dr James conceded that it is possible that the participants in the study knew that they were being watched by researchers and delayed opening fire on black suspects as a result.
However, she says researchers worked to minimize that bias. The study was initially designed to test how fatigue, experience and other factors impact in decision-making in deadly force scenarios and so race was never mentioned with participants before they went through the course.
Additionally – Dr James says – the simulator offers realistic scenarios that show life-size videos of police traffic stops and other incidents. The set-up means that most participants have very real physiological and psychological reactions to what’s unfolding in front of them, she says.
The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institute of Justice and the Office of Naval Research, essentially the federal government, who would find it in its best interest to prove in anyway it could that cops are less likely to shoot black suspects over white suspects.
The reality is, the government has refused to do a valid study on the issue, even after Congress ordered it to do so in 1994.
Such arguments suggest that the use of deadly force by police officers unfairly targets blacks. All that is needed are the numbers to prove it.
But those numbers do not exist. And because of that, the current national debate over the role of race in police killings is being conducted more or less in a vacuum.
Researchers have sought reliable data on shootings by police officers for years, and Congress even ordered the Justice Department to provide it, albeit somewhat vaguely, in 1994. But two decades later, there remains no comprehensive survey of police homicides. The even greater number of police shootings that do not kill, but leave suspects injured, sometimes gravely, is another statistical mystery.
Without reliable numbers, the conventional wisdom is little more than speculation. Indeed, some recent research suggests that it may not even be correct: One study of police data in St. Louis concluded that black and white officers were equally likely to shoot African-American suspects, while another experiment found that both officers and civilians in simulated situations hesitated significantly longer before firing at black suspects than they did at whites.
“It’s shocking,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “For 20 years, we’ve been trying to get the government to do something. We don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on in the use of lethal force. Are young black males being shot at a rate disproportionate to their involvement in crime? Are white officers shooting black males in areas where they’re not expected to have those sorts of interactions? Is this an aberration, a trend, routine, something going on for a long time? We don’t know.”
Not only do we not know the racial breakdown of police homicides, we don’t know with any precision how many homicides occur, period.