African Americans frequently report that police officers are more likely to stop, question and even use force against them than against white suspects. The experience begins rather early. Black youth describe being followed in convenience stores or being pulled over or frisked by police repeatedly. Research on bias in policing has shown that the stereotype that young African American males are more crime-prone oftentimes is accompanied by disparate treatment by the police. But explicit bias, in and by itself, is not always associated with negative or discriminatory police actions.
One result of the perception and experience of discrimination is that when African Americans find themselves in situations where there is the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their group, it will negatively affect their performance. This is what is known in the social psychology literature as stereotype threat.
Recent research also shows that African Americans experience stereotype threat, or the fear of doing something that will inadvertently confirm the criminal stereotype, in encounters with police-type figures, if and when the stereotype is relevant to the situation. Social psychologist Cynthia Najdowski has shown that the concern about being judged unfairly by the police because of stereotypes will lead innocent black suspects to experience more arousal, a greater cognitive load, and engage in more self-regulatory efforts than whites during those encounters. Because police believe that nervous behavior is a non-verbal cue to deception, Najdowski hypothesizes that stereotype threat could, ironically, increase the likelihood that individuals will be perceived as suspicious and that this will lead police to initiate investigatory contacts with blacks disproportionately more often than with whites.
Najdowski proposes to run an experiment to test the hypothesis that racial differences in non-verbal behaviors in police encounters are mediated by stereotype threat and that stereotype threat, in turn, affects police officers’ decisions to target blacks (versus whites). The experiment involves having actual police officers view videos of staged encounters between a security officer and citizens who would be either white or black males experiencing either high or low levels of stereotype threat. To explore how citizens’ behavior and its effect on police officers’ perceptions and judgments change (or not) over the course of an encounter, police officers would view segments of videos taken of the citizens either just before, during, or just after, a staged encounter with a security officer. After viewing the videos, police officers would report how suspicious they perceived each citizen to be, and then make judgments regarding whether they would suspect the citizen of criminal activity or initiate contact with him.