Racially-Biased Distance Perception in Law Enforcement Decisions

Awarded Scholars:
Jay Van Bavel, New York University
Project Date:
Nov 2015
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Recent high-profile police shootings have inspired researchers to study the factors that contribute to African Americans being disproportionately targeted and shot by police officers. Most research has focused on whether police officers and other subject populations can accurately detect the presence (and absence) of a weapon, and the role of weapon perception in their shooting decisions. Anecdotal evidence and preliminary research both suggest that social groups that pose a threat to one’s own group tend to be perceived as physically close to oneself. However, there is little work examining the role of perception of physical proximity in the domain of intergroup relations and no research has examined the role of visual (i.e. distance and speed) perception in the context of law enforcement decisions.

Building on his previous research that suggests that distance perception may affect the decision to shoot an unarmed suspect, psychologist Jay Van Bavel will examine how social cultural factors, such as the race of suspects, could affect distance and speed perceptions. He will also study how such biased perceptions may lead to consequences such as police officers’ decisions to shoot black and white suspects. Van Bavel will code and analyze an archival database of police shootings to examine if race of suspects predicts whether physical proximity was cited as a reason to shoot in reports of the incidents.


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