Unconscious Racial Biases in Police Decision Making

Awarded Scholars:
Bernadette Park, University of Colorado, Boulder
Charles Judd, University of Colorado, Boulder
Project Date:
Jun 2003
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

When police officers are on duty, they often must make life or death decisions in an instant, with little but their intuition and experience to guide them. But recent high-profile cases where officers have shot unarmed black men have raised the question of whether split second decisions by police are influenced by unconscious racial biases that dispose them to be more aggressive in dealing with blacks than whites.


Psychologists Bernadette Park and Charles Judd of the University of Colorado will study unconscious bias in police decision-making with an innovative computer program that sets participants in a simulated "life or death" situation and asks them to quickly decide whether or not to "shoot" a potentially dangerous target. They will subject 50 police officers and 50 civilians from the same community to the simulation, seeing if the subjects (especially the police officers) are more likely to "shoot" an unarmed black suspect than an unarmed white subject. Previous research by Park and Judd indicated that civilians were more likely to choose to shoot blacks than whites, but when asked later, they were unaware of the race of the target, suggesting that the bias in their judgments was unconscious. This study will see if the same is true of police officers and compare their behavior to a control group of civilians. Support from the Foundation will also go to improving the simulation and expanding the testing to several U.S. cities representing different regions of the country, with different levels of racial diversity, and different correlations between ethnicity and crime.


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