Racial Bias in Policing

Awarded Scholars:
Samuel R. Sommers, Tufts University
Delores Jones-Brown, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
John Dovidio, Yale University
Project Date:
Nov 2009
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Supplemental Funding

  • $381,669 (November 2011)
  • $275,000 (June 2013)

Scarcely any other controversy in law enforcement has received more attention in recent years than racial profiling. The practice of targeting, searching, or detaining individuals for criminal activity based on racial stereotypes surfaced in the national political and legal agenda in the late 1990s. The image of racial discrimination in the exercise of police authority was most vividly etched in the public’s mind, however, by three widely publicized cases: Rodney King, a 26-year-old African American who was severely beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers, Abner Louima, the 30-year-old Haitian immigrant who was brutally assaulted by a group of New York City police officers, and Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old unarmed West African immigrant who was shot forty-one times by four New York City policemen in front of his home. These dramatic instances of excess in the exercise of police authority touch a raw nerve in American civic life—the possibility that racial bias causes unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. Is it racial bias that explains the police’s disparate use of force in dealing with minorities, especially young black men? Under what circumstances might race influence police officers’ decision making? And how do we prevent racial discrimination in the exercise of police authority?

Current Projects

Motivating Questions

Several concerns motivate the RSF Working Group on Racial Bias in Policing. The first is a well-documented reality. Blacks, and to a certain extent Latinos, are overrepresented in the receiving end of the criminal justice system, especially jails and prisons, with significantly negative consequences for the life chances of these groups, and for the future of their communities. The law enforcement system has enormous discretionary power in determining who is stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, and how punishment is dispensed. The skewed statistics, along with some dramatic instances of excess in the exercise of police authority, raise the possibility that racial bias is responsible for the treatment of minorities by law enforcement.

The second concern has to do with the capacity of social science to shed light on the mechanisms underlying bias and discrimination. Allegations of racial bias in law enforcement put representatives of the law on the defensive. This not only made necessary administrative data harder to come by but precluded cooperation in finding ways to redress and prevent discrimination. As a result, and for the most part, we have had only indirect statistical evidence of racial bias in law enforcement.

A New Alliance Between Social Scientists and the Police

Over the last few years, however, a new generation of law enforcement officials has emerged, with a leadership willing to entertain closer scrutiny of police department efforts to improve relationships with the minority communities that they serve and to prevent racial profiling. The working group was created to take advantage of the tools that social science has developed in the context of experimental and survey research (especially in the field of social psychology), together with the data that some police departments are now willing to share, to shed light on how law enforcement might change its officer recruitment, hiring, and training decisions to reduce racial bias.

Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at UCLA and former RSF visiting scholar, has been instrumental in creating formal partnerships between law enforcement agencies and academic researchers. Through a research consortium that he helped create, the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity (CPLE), Goff has secured unprecedented access to personnel data and permission to recruit police officers as study participants, in exchange for sharing knowledge and research findings with participating police departments.

The researchers have managed to start collaborative research projects in 12 of the 19 police departments around the country that are now affiliated with the CPLE. About a dozen projects are now underway and another handful are on the drawing board. The group’s original focus on the measurement of racial bias has grown to encompass three related topics: the causes and consequences of racial profiling, the implications of requiring local police to enforce immigration laws, and the effects of organizational equity measures on police behavior and effectiveness. Research is underway on all three issues. For example, studies in Denver and San Jose are matching psychological tests on individual officers' explicit and implicit racial bias with arrest records in order to see whether or not there is a clear link between racial bias and racially disparate arrest patterns. A study in San Jose is analyzing a large collection of booking photos to see whether suspects whose pictures conform to racial stereotypes (as rated by an independent panel) are more likely to have had force used on them by the police. On immigration enforcement issues, a survey in Salt Lake City revealed that minority community residents anticipated being less likely to view the police as legitimate or to voluntarily report crimes in case scenarios where police were cross-deputized to enforce federal immigration laws. A national survey is now underway to see how widespread these attitudes might be. On issues of organizational equity, a “climate assessment” survey was just completed in Baltimore County, examining whether perceptions of fair treatment within the police force are related to retention of female and minority officers and how this is related to the perceptions of effectiveness of law enforcement in minority communities there.


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