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Originally published Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Guest: Is excessive police force in Seattle due to racial bias?

Social scientists have long known that people can simultaneously hold egalitarian values and act according to a noxious set of stereotypes, writes guest columnist Rachel D. Godsil.


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SEATTLE has a race problem? Really?

Those of us who live outside Seattle would have likely judged the city as among the least likely places to invite federal investigation of its police for excessive force and racially biased policing. Seattle voluntarily sought to integrate its schools until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise. Seattle’s citizens are known for being exceptionally progressive on a wide range of issues.

Yet the Department of Justice’s investigation into the Seattle Police Department found a pattern of excessive force and evidence of racial bias. A federal monitor is overseeing reform of the police department.

According to a survey commissioned by the monitor, Seattle citizens have widely differing attitudes toward the police depending on their race or ethnicity. Should we now rethink our assumptions about Seattle as a city that cares about fairness and racial equality?

Not necessarily. Social scientists have long known that people can simultaneously hold egalitarian values and act according to a noxious set of stereotypes about groups of people. This dissonance has been named “implicit bias.” The most widely used test to measure implicit bias, the Implicit Association Test, was devised by University of Washington Professor Anthony Greenwald.

Most whites and even a significant percentage of people of color hold implicit biases against African Americans and Latinos according to projectimplicit.org, a Web research center housed at Harvard University. The Department of Justice report identified implicit bias as among the likely causes of the treatment of people of color in Seattle.

So caring about racial equality does not automatically translate into treating people equally. To overcome implicit bias in behavior requires people to consciously override their automatic assumptions and reactions.

This is particularly true in policing when the stakes are so high. Stanford University Professor Jennifer Eberhardt in a study published in 2004 found that, when confronted with pictures of faces and asked, “Who looks criminal?”, police officers more often choose black faces than white ones.

The disparity increases as the black faces become more stereotypically black. Her study demonstrates the powerful effects of stereotypical associations on visual perception and attention — findings that carry important implications for split-second police-citizen interactions.

The settlement between the DOJ and Seattle requires particularized training to address racial discrimination, which can be effective in overcoming behaviors animated by implicit bias.

For example, “shooter” studies by University of Colorado’s Joshua Correll demonstrate that, when people use a computer simulation that presents them with images of black and white males holding either guns or harmless objects, they are more likely to mistake a harmless object for a gun when it is held by a black man. They are thus more likely to shoot unarmed black men than unarmed white men.

There is reason to hope. Correll’s follow-up studies with the Denver Police Department show that police officers are far more accurate in their judgment than civilians. And follow-up studies by Florida State University’s E. Ashby Plant demonstrate that, with extensive practice with the simulation, both civilians and cops can minimize the effects of racial bias in the short term, and quite possibly mitigate it in the long term.

Practice might not make us perfect, but it can make us better.

But training must flow from a context-specific evaluation of the department and the city. Implicit bias — or even explicit bias — may be a cause, but other phenomena may also be at work. Researchers have found that interracial interactions trigger anxiety that literally diminishes our cognitive capacity.

Professor Phillip Atiba Goff has found that stereotypes about black masculinity can lead interactions with black men to also lead some men of other races to experience masculinity anxiety, which also tends to end badly. In his work with the Center for Police Equity in coordination with police departments in different cities across the country, Goff has found that anxiety about seeming racist can have a greater correlation with the excessive use of force than either explicit or implicit bias.

Goff and the Center for Police Equity have also shown that collaborations between social scientists and police departments can help alter these dynamics, allowing the police to do their job to keep communities safe without the risk that black and Latino men and women will become victims of police bias or anxiety.

The Seattle Police Department should take steps to work with social scientists who have a demonstrated record of working with police departments to reduce the link between race and excessive force.

I am a New Yorker. We clearly have our own police and race problems to address. Our police department is in the midst of a federal trial over stopping people solely because of their race.

I am also the research director for a consortium of social scientists and advocates focusing on the role that the mind sciences can play in preventing racial bias and anxiety from undercutting our commitments to equality. I am optimistic about the possibilities for positive change, but know that they require sustained effort and commitment.

Seattle has already taken some steps to fix the problems in its police force. Yet the reform required by the DOJ will be impossible without a permanent police chief and hierarchy in place that understands the complexity of racial dynamics and acknowledges the role that race still plays in our society today.

Just as it was necessary for activists to organize and apply the pressure that has forced both Seattle and New York to begin confronting the problem of bias in their police departments, it is now necessary for all of us to get smart about reform. Decades of social and mind-science research is now at our disposal. This research, and the engagement of researchers with police departments, opens new doors for comprehending and responding to the role race plays in our society.

Rachel D. Godsil is a law professor at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, N.J., and director of research for the American Values Institute.




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