Newswise — Several recent incidents between police and community members, such as the police shootings of the unarmed Michael Brown (2014, Ferguson, Missouri), 12-year old Tamir Rice (2014, Cleveland, Ohio), and the sleeping Breonna Taylor (March 2020, Louisville, Kentucky), have eroded trust in and fostered a generalized discontentment with the police force in the United States. This public loss of faith was heightened after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face-down in the street. These victims of police violence all had one thing in common: they were Black, calling attention to a possible racial bias in the police force. Here, we review some research on police and stereotyping, police officers’ aggressiveness, and the impact of psychological science on policing in the United States.

Police and Stereotyping

A big concern is whether police engage in racial profiling—targeting persons of a certain race because of assumptions about their racial or ethnic group rather than because of their actual behavior. Researchers Rebecca C. Hetey and APS Fellow Jennifer L. Eberhardt (2018) have already reported that there is plenty of evidence for racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, where Blacks are much more likely to be punished than Whites. These racial disparities might also play a role in police behavior and the resulting deaths of Black persons.

Heather M. Kleider-Offutt, Alesha D. Bond, and Shanna E. A. Hegerty (2017) reviewed a series of studies suggesting that negative biases associating Black men with criminality are even more pronounced for men with certain facial features that are more Afrocentric (e.g., darker skin, a wide nose, full lips). This bias appears to occur because these men are readily categorized as stereotypically Black and representative of the category “Black male,” which also associates them with the criminal-Black-male stereotype. This negative stereotype may have originated from early research, later discredited, that tried to connect skull characteristics to certain traits and promoted the idea that Blacks are inferior to Whites and in need of control. Although this research was discredited, this type of stereotyping may lead to negative judgments and result in violent behaviors toward stereotyped members of the category. Moreover, it “may be automatic and, therefore, potentially unavoidable,” wrote the researchers.

Keith Payne (2006) wrote specifically about how racial stereotypes can lead people to claim to see a weapon where there is none. This weapon bias appears to affect the decisions made in the proverbial split second. Payne reviewed controlled laboratory studies in which participants made visual discriminations between guns and harmless hand tools right after a human face flashed: a Black face on some trials, a White face on others. Participants were instructed to ignore the faces and respond only to the objects. When they made the decision at their own pace, race did not affect their accuracy, although they were faster in accurately identifying a gun after seeing a Black face. When participants had only a few seconds to make their decision, they falsely claimed to see a gun more often when the face was Black than when it was White. “Such a bias could have important consequences for decision making by police officers and other authorities interacting with racial minorities,” and this bias might occur “even for those who are actively trying to avoid it,” wrote Payne. So, how to address and reduce this bias? Payne cited studies indicating that police officers with the most firearms training tend to show the least race bias, and that practice identifying weapons may also reduce weapon bias in police officers.

When participants had only a few seconds to make their decision, they falsely claimed to see a gun more often when the face was Black than when it was White.

Keith Payne (2006)

Other Causes of Police Aggressiveness

In a 2019 article, Reinoud Kaldewaij, Saskia B. J. Koch, Wei Zhang, Mahur M. Hashemi, Floris Klumpers, and Karin Roelofs suggested that police officers might have difficulty controlling emotional responses partly due to the effect of high levels of testosterone on the brain circuits that control emotion. While in an MRI scanner, Dutch police recruits completed a task in which they had to approach or avoid angry and happy faces by moving a joystick. Researchers also collected saliva samples to measure testosterone levels, and participants self-reported their levels of aggression. Regardless of testosterone and aggression levels, participants were faster and more accurate at approaching happy faces and avoiding angry faces (congruent trials) than at approaching angry faces and avoiding happy faces (incongruent trials that required emotional control). For the trials that required emotional control, brain blood flow, indicating activation, was stronger in the neural control circuits for participants with higher levels of aggression. But activation in these same circuits was lower in participants who had high testosterone in addition to high aggression levels, indicating that such a high aggressivity–testosterone combination may decrease the efficiency of emotional control. Hence, aggressive individuals who are mentally healthy seem able to use a brain circuit to regulate their emotions, but this regulation might fail under challenging situations known to increase testosterone. These findings might explain why police officers, though selected for their high emotional control, may show poor control (e.g., using excessive violence) in certain situations. This research does not serve as an excuse for excessive violent behavior, but it can have implications for selecting and training first responders.

A high aggressivity–testosterone combination may decrease the efficiency of emotional control.

Kaldewaij et al. (2019)

Possible Paths to Improve Police-Community Relations

As noted, firearms training might reduce police officers’ race bias, and practice identifying weapons may also reduce police officer volunteers’ weapon bias. In addition, Payne (2006) cited research showing that consciously planning to link racial categories to specific counterstereotypic thoughts (e.g., when I see a Black face, I will think “safe”) might reduce automatic racial biases.

Other studies also suggest that training police officers might be a key factor in eliminating their racial biases. In 2005, E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche examined police officers’ decisions to shoot Black and White criminal suspects in a computer simulation, finding that the officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed White suspects. However, after extensive training with the computer program, in which the race of the suspect was completely unrelated to the presence of a weapon, the officers were able to eliminate their bias to shoot more Black than White suspects.

The sense of police legitimacy will be higher when people perceive that the police make fair decisions and treat people fairly.

Tyler et al. (2015)

Besides the need to implement training that addresses race bias in the police force, practices aimed at increasing police legitimacy might be effective for improving police-community relations and even reducing crime, as APS Fellow Tom R. Tyler, Phillip Atiba Goff, and APS Fellow Robert J. MacCoun suggested in their 2015 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. When people feel the police have legitimacy—that they deserve the power to make decisions to affect others’ lives— they are more likely to comply with police directives. The sense of police legitimacy will be higher when people perceive that the police make fair decisions and treat people fairly. These perceptions are shaped not only by individual interactions with the police but also by patterns of interaction with the community. Thus, Tyler and colleagues highlighted the importance of police focusing on individual and community interactions, making them as fair as possible. Police should give individuals “fair opportunities for voice and participation in designing policies and implementing them in the community.” Moreover, police should allow individuals to explain themselves during interactions with officers, treat everyone with dignity and respect, and be neutral and transparent about rules and decisions. These actions would support the adoption of a “positive and proactive social-psychology-based model of policing,” the researchers wrote.

More psychological science research on policing and law enforcement