Are Police Officers More Racist than Most Other Americans? It’s Complicated

By Dr. Brett Pelham

If one looks at racial attitudes, most officers report that racism is a thing of the past. But if one looks at racial biases in the decision to use a gun, police officers may be a little less racially biased than the rest of us.

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Police officers at a protest. Image by Sean Lee, courtesy of Unsplash.

In the past couples of months, there seems to have been a sea change in the attitudes of many Americans about racism and police brutality. In the wake of several shootings of unarmed Black men — and in the wake of the slow strangulation of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 (captured in painful detail on smartphone video) — many Americans are asking difficult questions about the American police system.

One of the simplest and most important questions is this: Are the police racist? This seemingly simple question has a very complex answer. The gist of it is that, in some ways, police officers do seem to be more racist than the general public — while in others, they seem to be less so.

To my knowledge, the best survey to address the broad question of whether police are more racially biased than other U.S adults was a highly representative Pew Research Center survey of about 8,000 active-duty police officers and about 4,500 U.S. adults. Both surveys were conducted in the spring and summer of 2016, and the details of the survey (such as identical question wording) allowed fair comparisons between the opinions of police officers and those of the general public.

As a group, police officers often believed that racism no longer exists in America. The U.S. public — especially the Black U.S. public — often disagreed.

Consider one of the most straightforward survey questions about race and racism. That question was whether “our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.” A surprising 92% of White American police officers endorsed this statement, suggesting that they believe racism is a thing of the past. Only six percent of White police officers disagreed, acknowledging that there is still the need to combat racism (2% were unsure). Among Black police officers, 69% acknowledged a lack of equal rights. But among the White general public, 41% (still a minority, but a much larger one) acknowledged a lack of equal rights in America. Among the Black public, 84% said so. It is hard to digest such findings and avoid the conclusion that, on average, police officers are even more racist than the rest of us.

On the other hand, the possibility that police officers are more racist than the average American does not mean that the job of police officer should be eliminated. Psychologist Steven Pinker has cogently argued that one of the biggest reasons why human beings kill one another at much lower rates today than they did at about any other time in human history is because of modern police forces (and the associated “rule of law”). In the 1700s, the annual homicide rate in what became the United Sates was about 30 per 100,000 people. Apparently, the founding fathers found a lot of reasons to kill one another. This value dropped to 20 per 100,000 by 1800 and dropped again to about 10 per 100,000 in 1900. In 2018, the annual U.S. homicide rate, high profile mass school shootings included, had dropped further to about 5 per 100,000. Most progressives thus realize that police officers do an important job. But they foresee a better potential future in which police officers take a kinder, gentler approach to maintaining public safety.

If there is good evidence that police officers misunderstand racism, there is also good evidence that the public misunderstands police officers. This is how the Pew Foundation’s Rich Morin and Andrew Mercer summarize the public’s view of what police officers do in the line of duty:

“Many Americans believe it is common for police officers to fire their guns. About three-in-ten adults estimate that police fire their weapons a few times a year while on duty, and more than eight-in-ten (83%) estimate that the typical officer has fired his or her service weapon at least once in their careers, outside of firearms training or on a gun range…”

But the same survey that I just mentioned asked police officers whether they had ever fired their guns in the line of duty. Only 27% reported having done so. That’s correct. Fully 73% reported that they had never fired their guns. Clearly, the American public believes that U.S. police officers are much more trigger-happy than they really are. That’s a pretty large anti-police stereotype.

Getting back to police officers rather than stereotypes about them, there is some reason to believe that police officers may be better behaved than you and I might be in a life-or-death shooting situation. Consider a study that directly compared discrimination in police officers with discrimination in the citizens who police officers are asked to protect. In response to police shootings that occurred more than two decades ago, Joshua Correll and colleagues devised a clever way to assess “the police officer’s dilemma.” When you see a Black man holding a small shiny object that might be a handgun, what should you do? Of course, you have only milliseconds to make your decision.

Correll and his colleagues found that when college students played a video game that placed them in this dilemma, they shot Black men more quickly than they shot White men. They were also more likely to shoot Black men holding a cell phone than to shoot White men holding a cell phone. They also pulled the trigger more quickly on Black targets than on White targets. This same anti-Black shooting bias shows up in non-student populations. Such studies reveal an unconscious, and presumably unintended, anti-Black bias.

But in a follow-up study, Correll and his colleagues went even further. They used this “shooter paradigm” to compare police officers with regular people — in fact, people who were from the same neighborhoods that these police officers patrolled. Both police officers and regular citizens were racially biased in their shooting decisions: they shot Blacks more often than Whites under exactly the same circumstances.

But, on what was arguably the most important measure — the simple shoot / don’t shoot decisions — the police officers were less biased than the community sample — not more so. In other words, police officers do show an unconscious racially biased shooting tendency. But on the whole, this tendency is weaker, not stronger, than the same tendency as measured in regular U.S. citizens.

On the subtler reaction time measures that assessed how quickly people fired at the suspicious person, the police officers and the non-officers were about equally biased. Police officers don’t have a monopoly on racism. Racism seems to be so pervasive that the citizens that police officers are asked to serve and protect are just as biased as police officers, if not more so.

Of course, no one study can end the debate about an important question like racism. For example, a recent study by Jennifer Eberhardt and colleagues examined body cam footage from almost 1,000 recent Bay Area, California traffic stops. The study showed that both Black and White police officers spoke more disrepectfully to Black than to White drivers (e.g., “Hands on the wheel.” rather than “Thank you.”). Further, this was true even after taking into account why the person was being pulled over in the first place. Of course, this study focusing on the police could not compare racism in police officers with racism in the general public. But it did show that even Black police officers are not immune to racism, and it suggested that a lot of racism in police officers may be unconscious. Otherwise, why would officers who knew they were being caught on video treat White and Black drivers very differently?

Taken together with many other studies of racism in America, the clever and thoughtfully conducted studies summarized here suggest that many important questions about racism have complex answers. The simple answer to the question of whether racism exists in America is an emphatic ad distressing yes. The more complex questions about racism in America include questions such as why, when, where, and what we are going to do about it.

Suggested Reading

Correl, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1314–1329.

Correl, J., Park, B, Judd, C.M., Wittenbrink, B., Sadler, M.S., & Keesee, T. (2007). Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1006–1023.

Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies implicit social cognition, racism, gender, identity, and social justice.

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Brett is a social psychologist at Montgomery College, MD. Brett studies health, gender, culture, religion, identity, and stereotypes.

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