Psychosocial Factors Impacting Officers’ Decisions to Use Deadly Force

By Lois James, PhD, Assistant Professor, College of Nursing, Sleep and Performance Research Center, Washington State University; Lorie Fridell, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Criminology, University of South Florida; and Frank Straub Jr., PhD, Chief of Police (Ret.), Spokane, Washington, Police Department

A key issue facing the police profession today is the allegation of racial bias in the use of force. This longstanding issue was placed in the forefront with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, and the concern on the part of many community members has been reinforced and bolstered through the accumulating effect of media coverage of police shooting incidents throughout the year that followed. This debate occurs as the police profession, other professions, and the public learn about the science of bias, including implicit bias. Theory and research from psychologists who study human bias help with understanding the various psychological (as well as sociological) forces that might impact police decisions to shoot (or not shoot). Three lines of research shed light on these forces; together these studies identify several factors that might impact an officer’s decision to shoot—factors that might produce or eliminate differential responses to Black and White subjects. The three important groups of studies support the following statements:

  • • Police professionals may use more force (or be quicker to use force) against Blacks because, like many humans, they have a Black-crime implicit bias producing greater perceptions of threat from Blacks than from people of other races.
  • • The above phenomenon can be countered by high-quality use-of-force training.
  • • Police professionals may use less force (or be slower to use force) against Blacks—possibly putting the officers in danger—out of concern for the social and legal consequences associated with shooting racial and ethnic minorities.

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