Implicit Bias and the Shooting of Jonathan Ferrell

Studies show bias can affect even well-meaning police officers
CMPD Officer Randall Kerrick's training has become an issue of contention in his voluntary manslaughter trial.

As CMPD Officer Randall Kerrick testified in his trial for the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell last week, it was hard not to analyze his thoughts and actions. If the dash cam video showed that Ferrell’s hands were empty and swinging at his sides, why did Kerrick fear he might still have a gun? If Kerrick had seen a six-foot-tall white man running toward him, instead of a six-foot-tall black man, would he still have reached so quickly for his gun?

These kinds of questions can’t easily be answered in a courtroom, but they have been addressed by social scientists for decades. Consider this presentation, "Promoting Fair and Impartial Policing: Research and Intervention," posted on the website of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The presenters were Lorie Fridell, a professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, and Phillip Goff, a social psychology professor and president of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA. They make some compelling points:

—Scientific research suggests that “even the best officers, because they are human” might practice racially biased policing.

—Implicit bias, which includes associating people of color with violence, aggressiveness, and criminality, can impact people who are unaware of it and even people who consciously reject racial stereotypes.

—In a 2002 study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and University of Chicago, participants were asked to play a video game in which were supposed to shoot armed suspects and not shoot unarmed suspects. Images in the game included a picture of a white man holding a canned beverage, a black man holding a canned beverage, and a white man holding a gun. (see the photos on pages 39-43 here.)

Here’s what the researchers found:

In Study 1, participants fired on an armed target more quickly when he was African American than when he was White, and decided not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly when he was White than when he was African American. In Study 2, we attempted to increase error rates by forcing participants to make decisions very quickly. Participants in this study failed to shoot an armed target more often when that target was White than when he was African American. If the target was unarmed, participants mistakenly shot him more often when he was African American than when he was White.

This research provides context to the decisions Kerrick made early on the morning of September 14, 2013. It doesn’t explain why he fired 12 bullets at Jonathan Ferrell. But one thing is clear: He’s not the only police officer who has made such a decision in a moment of fear. And unless police departments figure out better ways to train new officers to deal with their own implicit bias, he won’t be the last.

Categories: By Lisa Rab, The Buzz