The Influence of Suspect Race and Ethnicity on Decisions to Shoot in a Deadly Force Judgment and Decision-Making Simulator
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Concern that the status characteristics of suspects influence police use of deadly force has generated substantial during the past several decades. Previous research based on incident reports of police shootings and experimental research using substantially less realistic stimuli prompts has supported two, contrasting hypotheses: (1) that police in the United States disproportionally shoot Black suspects because of racial bias, or (2) that police disproportionally shoot Black suspects because they were more likely than Whites to constitute a threat. This goal of this dissertation was to shed empirical light on these competing hypotheses by advancing the methodological techniques used to examine the influence of suspect status characteristics on police use of deadly force. After developing and testing a novel set of sixty realistic, high definition video deadly force scenarios based on thirty years of official data on officer-involved shooting in the United States, three experiments were conducted testing participant responses to the scenarios in computerized simulators. In each experiment, participants were presented with White, Black and Hispanic suspects in potentially deadly situations. In the first experiment (n = 24), we found that participants took longer to shoot Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects, were more likely to shoot unarmed White suspects than unarmed Black or Hispanic suspects, and were more likely to fail to shoot armed Black suspects than armed White or Hispanic suspects. In the second experiment (n = 48), we found that participants experienced higher levels of neurophysiological arousal in response to Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects, but still took longest to shoot Black suspects. In the third experiment (n = 30), we found that across both fatigued and rested conditions participants took longer to shoot Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects, and were more likely to shoot unarmed White suspects than unarmed Black or Hispanic suspects. In sum, this research demonstrated that neither of the two dominant hypotheses is sufficient to explain racial and ethnic bias in police use of deadly force. Despite evidence of implicit racial bias, participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects in their decisions to shoot. The results of these three experiments using a more externally valid research design have challenged the results of less robust experimental designs and have shed additional light on the broad issue of the role that status characteristics play in the criminal justice system. Future research should assess whether this finding holds among other populations of research subjects, determine whether bias favoring Black suspects is a consequence of administrative measures (e.g., education, training, policies and laws), and identify the cognitive processes that underlie this phenomenon.