2018-03-24 17:29:38 UTC
Police Shootings Triggered by Subject’s Demeanor, Not Race
BY ROBERT FARAGO |MAR 23, 2018 |80 COMMENTS
Force Science Institute writes: It’s all about a subject’s demeanor—not
about race, ethnicity, or attire—when encounters with police escalate to
violence, according to a new study from Washington State U . . .
Activist groups and mainstream media, of course, tend to insist otherwise.
But a research team that conducted the first controlled laboratory study
comparing how behavior and visible characteristics influence whether
officers escalate or de-escalate street confrontations has found that
appearance bias is not a dominant factor . . .
The way subjects act is what makes the difference.
“These findings offer important new insight into how fairly officers
interact with people during routine encounters that have the potential to
turn violent, and what this means for perceptions of police legitimacy,
procedural justice, and allegations of racial bias,” writes the study’s lead
author, Dr. Lois James.
She’s an assistant professor and researcher who works with the university’s
Sleep and Performance Research Center, with a number of police-related
studies that have been reported in Force Science News.
While her latest findings are encouraging for law enforcement’s public
image, her team uncovered some troubling evidence that she describes as
“rather shocking.” Justifiably so!
Participants in her new study were 50 officers randomly selected from a list
of qualified volunteers from the patrol division of a mid-size metropolitan
PD. All but a handful were white males, with an average of nearly 16 years
on the job.
Armed with training-modified Glock 22s, they were exposed to a series of
video scenarios, depicting police-citizen interactions in five situations: a
vehicle stop, a welfare check, an investigation of “suspicious
circumstances,” a disturbance of the peace, and a community meeting.
Six versions of each scenario were filmed, so that the same action could
feature key role players who differed as to race (white, black, or Hispanic)
and attire (“business” dress, consisting of suit or slacks with a
button-down shirt, or “street” clothes, including jeans, sneakers, and
hoodie). “Gender, age, body type of the suspect, and the environment for the
interaction were held constant,” James says.
Half the scenarios within each racial/ethnic category depicted individuals
who were confrontational from the onset, while the other half featured
non-confrontational individuals, she says. Confrontational subjects, while
not behaving criminally or displaying any pre-assault indicators, “acted
with hostility, antagonism, contempt, or belligerence…being rude,
disrespectful, and mocking.” Non-confrontational individuals were “friendly,
polite, and respectful.”
James points out: “It is important to note that this variable was not
dictated by [initial] actions of the officer. That behavior was apparent
from the very start of the encounter, regardless of how the officer
approached the scenario or initiated contact.”
Officers were told to “respond as they would in a routine police-citizen
encounter,” interacting with people on the screen, trying to “resolve
problems peaceably,” and de-escalating “where possible.”
Depending on what the participating officers did during the encounter, each
scenario was “branched” in one of these ways:
1) to a “positive track,” where the subject ultimately cooperates and ends
up “visibly pleased” or at least “neutral” regarding the outcome, or
2) to a “negative track,” which was initiated if an officer failed to
display a professional attitude or dialogue, including disrespecting,
patronizing, or insulting the subject, or pointed a gun at him/her
Once the action branched negative, the subject “became visibly upset” or
angry. Then the officer could initiate a “repair track” by trying to
de-escalate these reactions.
If he failed to attempt de-escalation, however, the action escalated to the
“deadly” level. The subject “became enraged, rapidly presented a weapon, and
started shooting,” James explains.
Qs & As.
James’ team sought to answer two research questions:
1) Did officers differ in how they treated on-screen individuals based on
race/ethnicity, attire, or demeanor?
2) If the negative track was initiated, did officers’ de-escalation attempts
differ based on race/ethnicity, attire, and demeanor of the person they were
Here’s what the researchers found:
• “[O]fficers did not treat white, black, or Hispanic suspects significantly
differently,” James writes. “[R]oughly equivalent percentages of scenarios
featuring white, black, and Hispanic individuals resulted in cooperative,
neutral, and deadly outcomes [indicating] that officers were not influenced
by individuals’ race/ethnicity during their interactions.”
• “[O]fficers did not treat street-dressed individuals differently [than]
business-dressed individuals. [A]ttire did not predict the likelihood of a
cooperative outcome…a neutral outcome…or a deadly outcome.”
• “The sole significant result was demeanor…. [S]cenarios featuring
confrontational individuals were significantly less likely to result in a
cooperative outcome…and significantly more likely to result in deadly
outcomes…. [O]fficers treated people better and avoided escalation when the
on-screen individuals were friendly, respectful, and polite….[Officers]
responded similarly to confrontational individuals regardless of their
race/ethnicity or how they were dressed.”
• Numerically, officers did attempt de-escalation (as evidenced by
activation of the repair track) less frequently in scenarios with black
individuals and with subjects in street garb. “But the difference was not
statistically significant,” James says.
• Again, “the sole significant variable was demeanor; officers were
significantly more likely to attempt de-escalation when the individual was
Bottom line: “Collectively, these results suggest that individual
characteristics did not influence how officers treated people in the
simulator,” James writes. “[B]eing confrontational was the sole significant
predictor of a deadly outcome.”
MORE TO DO
The research findings suggest that police were impartial regarding race and
attire, which speaks well for law enforcement in these troubled times.
Nonetheless, James does point out a major dark element among the study’s
Even in scenarios in which individuals were not rude or disrespectful at the
outset, officers often “acted in ways that did not lend to the peaceful
resolution of encounters,” she writes.
Indeed, 52% of the scenarios that began with non-confrontational subjects
ended up with deadly force (compared to 63% of scenarios with hostile
individuals). In the final split-second that officers are confronted with a
lethal weapon, James notes, shooting may well be fully justified. But “when
considering the ebbs and flows of the entire dynamic encounter” that led to
that point, “the appropriateness of police actions [along the way] is less
Given her study’s set-up, where “any attempt to de-escalate the encounter
would have resulted in its peaceful resolution,” the 52% could be
“classified as unnecessary force,” James writes—a “rather shocking” result
that shows “we still have much work to do.”
James’ study, “Testing the impact of citizen characteristics and demeanor on
police officer behavior in potentially violent encounters,” appears in
Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and can
be accessed in full for a fee by clicking here. Her colleagues in this
research were Dr. Stephen James and Dr. Bryan Vila of Washington State U.
Dr. Lois James can be reached at: ***@wsu.edu
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