How racial bias leads to police violence against black citizens

A psychologist explains the foundations of prejudice in American police forces and how departments can start addressing it.

The police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and of Philando Castile outside of St. Paul are the latest reminders that racial disparity in law enforcement can be deadly for black Americans. Kimberly Kahn is an assistant professor of social psychology and leads the Portland State University’s Gender, Race, and Sexual Prejudice (GRASP) Lab. Her research investigates how racial stereotypes affect behavior in the criminal justice domain. We asked her how racial bias—conscious or not—influences police officers’ interactions with minority communities.

ResearchGate: What are some of the main psychological factors at play in racially charged interactions between police officers and the public?

Kimberly Kahn: There are a variety of psychological factors that can influence police-suspect interactions. Explicit or overt racial prejudice can play a role, but racial bias can also be implicit—subtle and nonconscious—and yet still cause harmful outcomes. For example, we know that “shooter bias,” or the tendency for individuals to mistakenly shoot unarmed Blacks more than unarmed Whites, is driven by implicit stereotypes.

We also know that identity-related psychological factors, like stereotype threat, can impact police-suspect interactions. Stereotype threat is a social identity threat in which individuals feel that their identities will be devalued and they will be treated negatively based on group stereotypes. The stereotype becomes a threat in the air that changes people’s expectations and behaviors. Racial minorities can experience stereotype threat when interacting with police, as they are worried about being seen and treated as a criminal solely because of their race. On the other side, police officers are concerned about being seen as racist. These duel experiences of stereotype threat can lead the interactions to go poorly and escalate in force.

Finally, masculinity threat, or perceived threats to manhood, are often present in these interactions, as non-compliant suspects can trigger these perceived threats in officers. In response, officers can use force to compensate for the perceived threat. These are just a few of the psychological factors that are influencing these interactions.

RG: Are police officers more prejudiced than the general public, or is their racial prejudice simply more visible because of the consequences it has in their profession?

Kahn: There is some research that shows that police officers tend to have higher levels of social dominance orientation, which is an individual’s preference for group based inequality. However, when we look at things like implicit bias and stereotypes, we see that this is a larger societal problem and that these subconscious beliefs are pervasive. So it’s a larger societal issue, and not a problem only specific to police. Police officers, like regular citizens, are likely to hold and reflect the same stereotypes and cultural biases as society.  We see similar racial disparities across societal domains including, education, healthcare, and work settings.

“This is not a new problem that has emerged in the last few years, but one that has a consistent and long history in the United States.”


RG: Is the kind of police violence that’s been making headlines over the past two years a uniquely American problem?

Kahn: We have seen similar racial disparities in shootings and high profile incidents in other countries and areas, including places in Europe. However, America has more gun violence in general, which can contribute to this problem. It is also important to note that this is not a new problem that has emerged in the last few years, but one that has a consistent and long history in the United States. Media coverage and societal attention has increased in recent years, but the problem had been evident well before that.

RG: Are there police departments that have been successful in reducing racial prejudice within their ranks? If so, what approaches did they use?

Kahn: There are some departments which have been noted as models in reducing use of force and promoting positive police-community relationships. The Dallas Police Department has been one of the recent leaders in providing open data about the department, increasing training, and revamping standards to reduce use of force and disparities. Some of the best practices and strategies to reduce prejudice in policing include adopting community policing models, in which partnerships with the community are emphasized, and a focus on building trust in communities. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently toured police departments across the country that have adopted the Department of Justice’s  recommendations on best practices in policing.

Training also plays a key role, including training on implicit racial bias, as well as de-escalation techniques and strategies to reduce use of force. Some states are now requiring implicit bias training for all of its police department members. The key is for a department to be proactive rather than reactive in making changes, and to start making changes before a critical incident occurs.

“Many partnerships between academics and police departments exist and are actively addressing these issues.”


RG: How can academic research help advance efforts to reduce police violence against black citizens?

Kahn: Academics have a lot to offer police departments to help reduce racial disparities in policing outcomes. We know a lot about the psychology of racial bias and how it impacts judgements, decisions, and behaviors. We can use that knowledge to give trainings to departments on racial bias. Indeed, many partnerships between academics and police departments exist and are actively addressing these issues. For example, the Center for Policing Equity involves academic researchers partnering with police departments to research, study, and provide training on racial equity issues.  We can also help to identify and study the problem, with an eye toward intervention. We also know a lot about what makes individuals feel respected and valued in an interaction. Research on procedural justice and legitimacy is a key aspect in promoting community trust with the police.

Furthermore, what may come as a surprise to people is that there is no national database or standardized measures on police use of force incidents, which means it is very hard for researchers to study this problem on a national level. In response, as part of the Justice Database, researchers have partnered with police departments across the country to begin to pool this data and provide analysis on police use of force across departments. Researchers are also playing an active role in the Department of Justice’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which is aimed at building police-minority legitimacy and trust by improving transparency and accountability.

Finally, police worn body cameras are also seen as a potential agent of change in reducing the likelihood of these incidents, and are being rolled out in departments across the country. Academics are actively researching this implementation and studying its effects on police behavior. The key is to have an open partnership between academics and police departments to study these issues and ultimately provide change.

RG: What should researchers, the police, and the public keep in mind going forward?

Kahn: Ultimately, addressing the issue of racial disparities in policing will take a multi-faceted approach. Training officers is only one piece of the puzzle. More research needs to be done to understand the problem, identify causal factors, and develop solutions. Policy and structural changes need to be made to the policing system to emphasize equity. It is important to remember that this is not only a policing problem, but one that reflects larger societal patterns of bias and institutionalized bias across society.  This is the true root of the problem, which needs to be changed at the societal level.

Want to know more? Here’s some suggested reading:

implicit bias
the impact ofpolicing and race
Featured image courtesy of Chris Rojas.