But now a new study has found exactly the opposite: even with white officers who do have racial biases, officers are three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.
The results come from a laboratory project at Washington State University using highly realistic police simulators, in which actors in various scenarios approach and respond to officers on large, high-definition video screens in an attempt to recreate critical situations on the street. The officers are equipped with real guns, modified to fire infrared beams rather than bullets, and the scenarios can branch into conflict or cooperation, depending on the officers’ words and actions.
It’s the third time researchers at Washington State — Lois James, Stephen M. James and Bryan J. Vila — have set up simulations to monitor the differing reactions of police when confronted by white or black suspects. And all three times, they found that officers took significantly more time to fire their weapons if the subject was black, according to their latest report, “The Reverse Racism Effect,” to be published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy.
It’s a complex subject, dating back to a 1974 study which concluded that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.” A 1978 report found that 60 percent of black suspects shot by the police carried handguns, compared with 35 percent of white suspects. In 2001, a statistical study showed that black people comprised 12 percent of the population but committed 43 percent of the killings of officers.
But there has also been a contrary narrative, that officers are hesitant to fire at black suspects, starting with a 1977 analysis of reports from major metropolitan departments which found officers fired more shots at white suspects than at black suspects, possibly because of “public sentiment concerning treatment of blacks.” And in 2004, David Klinger at the University of Missouri-St. Louis interviewed more than 100 officers and found “evidence of increased wariness about using deadly force against black suspects for fear of how it would be perceived and the associated consequences.”