Trayvon Martin and the Decision to Shoot
The Trayvon Martin shooting has called into question Florida's 'stand your ground' law, which allows a person to claim self-defense even if a plausible opportunity to escape harm exists. In a recent interview, former President Bill Clinton called for a review of the statute, saying that it could mean "anyone...can basically be a part of a neighborhood watch when they have a concealed weapon whether they had proper law enforcement training or not. And whether they've had any experience in conflict situations with people or not." Since research has shown that racial stereotypes play a significant role in our perception of who carries weapons (see our previous post), Clinton's argument raises a difficult question: what difference does "law enforcement training" make? Are civilians more likely than trained police officers to make errors in "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios, and will they show higher levels of racial bias in these errors? Conversely, can training and practice reduce the probability of mistaking, say, a bag of Skittles on a black teenager for a weapon?
In 2003, the Foundation funded a project that used an innovative computer program to test these questions and the role unconscious biases play in decision-making. In the first part of the study, participants were asked to look at images of blacks and whites holding one of a variety of objects, including guns, a cell phone and a wallet. If the image on the screen depicted an armed person, participants were asked to hit a button labeled 'shoot'; if not, they needed to press 'don't shoot.'
The results, published here, showed a clear division: Civilians were slower to make correct decisions; they had a harder time identifying a weapon, and they were more "trigger-happy" when making the decision to shoot. Worryingly, they also treated black and white targets differently: "When the target was white, all of the samples (Denver community, Denver police, and national police) set a relatively high criterion [to shoot]...But when the target was Black, the community set a significantly lower (more trigger-happy) criterion than the officers." In other words, the civilians were more likely to 'shoot' black targets than the police officers.
This is not to say that racial stereotypes did not affect police officers. The data showed that officers reacted at the same pace as civilians when confronted with images that challenged cultural stereotypes, like an unarmed black man or an armed white man. Officers tended to respond faster to the stereotypical image (an armed black target, for example) than a 'stereotype-inconsistent' one. The speed of their decision, the authors argue, revealed racial bias, even though the police officers' ultimate decisions to shoot or not shoot were less susceptible to racial bias than the civilians. The study concludes: "The expertise that police bring to a shoot/don't-shoot situation may not eliminate the difficulty of interpreting a stereotype-inconsistent target, but it does seem to minimize the otherwise robust impact of target race on the decision to shoot." [The study notes a previous project that sampled Florida police officers and found different outcomes; see here for more.]
So can civilians learn to reduce errors with practice and training? In the final part of the project, college students were asked to use the computer program over two days. As they practiced, a number of changes emerged. Initially, the students acted as the civilians did: they set a lower criterion for shooting black targets than white ones, and they took a longer time when faced with targets that challenged racial stereotypes. But over the course of the training, students became more stringent before deciding to shoot black images. Just as with police officers, though, reaction times did not change. "As a consequence of this shift," the study says, "our 'expert' participants began to look less like community members and more like police officers." The study concedes that the students' short training does not compare to police academy requirements; they also noted that between the two days of training, the practice wore off and the students behaved like novices at the start of the second round. Still, the data at least suggests that training and expertise could yield better outcomes and, crucially, in light of the Martin killing, lower levels of racial bias in these difficult scenarios.
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