How neuroscience can help us understand — and address — police racial profiling

Before they can begin to counteract implicit bias, law enforcement officers must first be aware of its existence

Published July 24, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>Susan Chiang</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(Susan Chiang via iStock)

The deliberate murders of white police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas are terrible acts of lawless revenge for earlier shootings of apparently innocent black people during routine interactions with police officers, such as Philando Castile in Minnesota. Videos of these and other violent encounters between black people and police officers have sparked wide outrage and mass protests across the United States, and the recent vigilante killings.

Some claim these videos are cherry-picked examples, and do not represent a broader trend. However, in a poll released by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation in November 2015, long before the recent shootings, six times as many African-Americans report being treated unfairly in dealings with the police by comparison to whites. A report from the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics on traffic stops shows that twice as many black people described their traffic stop as being for illegitimate reasons in comparison to whites. Going from feelings to facts, the same report indicates that black people were three times as likely to be searched as whites in a traffic stop.

Certain police officials wave away data suggesting unfair racial profiling by claiming that blacks are more likely to be involved in criminal activity than whites. Yet a study just released by the Center for Policing Equity shows the reality of racial discrimination. The data corrects for racial difference in criminal activities, and the study’s outcomes show that African-Americans are more than three times as likely to suffer from police use of force compared to whites, for everything from mild restraint to gunshots.

Based on this evidence, the fear and anxiety experienced by black people in their dealings with the police is quite justified, and so is the outrage over the recent shootings. As Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton stated, Castile would likely be alive if he were white. Using probabilistic thinking, we can calculate that if Castile was white, he would be half as likely to be stopped and more than three times less likely to be shot, thus six times more likely to avoid being killed.

Now, this does not mean that police officers who shot Castile and others did so for explicitly racist reasons. Research shows that all of us suffer from some degree of implicit bias, deeply ingrained negative attitudes associated with certain groups or markers of social identity. The large majority of white Americans — including police officers — are implicitly biased against African-Americans.

Such implicit bias powerfully impacts our attitudes toward others, even if we don’t know it. It results in what is known as the horns effect, when one negative characteristic — in this case, black skin — colors our whole impression of the person negatively. In contexts such as policing, this bias is literally a life-or-death matter, by a factor of six in the case of Castile.

How can we solve this problem? Fortunately, some police departments have started trainings around awareness of implicit bias. Yet this is not nearly enough. Most people assume that if they know about their bias, they are less likely to fall for it, and this is not true, according to research. Instead, we need to apply de-biasing techniques that would enable us to counter this implicit bias.

One excellent technique is de-anchoring, where instead of going with your gut intuitive reaction — which you know is highly likely to be biased — you adjust your inner estimation based on research. For instance, if a police officer knows that black people are more than three times as likely to experience police coercive force, she should think thrice before using force on someone who is black. On a higher level, police departments can institute policies where officers have to justify their use of force against black people with three times as much evidence.

This approach based on research about how our brains actually work would help prevent the horrible tragedies that result from police racial profiling.

By Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is a scholar of history, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Ohio State, and a president of the nonprofit Intentional Insights. He is CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and authored the best-seller "Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage."

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Editor's Picks Philando Castile Police Police Violence Racial Bias Racial Profiling