Spokane-area law enforcement officers took more than a second longer to shoot black suspects compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts in simulated scenarios studied by Washington State University researchers.
The recently published results, fruit of a one-of-its-kind laboratory at the WSU Spokane campus, is contrary to decades of evidence suggesting police are more likely to fire upon people of color than white suspects.
The surprising results have prompted the lead author of the paper, Lois James, to seek broader evidence of how race influences the decision to use deadly force against a suspect.
“I would love to see this research replicated in larger cities,” said James, a criminal justice and criminology professor at WSU’s Spokane campus. “Unfortunately, our lab is the only one set up to simulate these kinds of scenarios.”
Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub agreed, calling the research invaluable to the training of officers in crisis intervention techniques. Spokane police officers were among the participants in the study.
“We need to be in the business of having science drive our policing strategies,” Straub said.
Thirty law enforcement officers from local agencies were tested in the lab, which employs a training simulator used by many police departments throughout the country to simulate common interactions in the field, such as a domestic violence dispute or a reported robbery attempt.
The elements of the scenarios were presented in ratios that mirrored those of the FBI’s statistics on use-of-force incidents reported from cities nationwide. These included race of the suspect, time of day and aggressiveness of the armed individual. Participants were given a replica Glock handgun similar to the one carried by many law enforcement agencies, equipped with sensors that measured, within fractions of a second, when participants fired.
According to the results of the research, law enforcement took 1.34 seconds longer to shoot a black suspect than a white suspect when all other factors were the same. Members of the public, recruited for a separate study, delayed their decisions to use lethal force against a black suspect by 0.68 seconds compared to a white suspect. There was no significant difference between the delay in shooting for white and Hispanic suspects in either group.
Participants were not told they were being studied for reactions based on the race of the suspect in the videos.
In addition, the study found that law enforcement officers were 25 times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects as they were unarmed white suspects. In some of the video scenarios, suspects reach for keys or a wallet in what could be perceived as a threatening movement.
James and her fellow researchers, WSU professors Bryan Vila and Kenn Daratha, suggest many reasons for the delay, though they caution against interpreting the results on a large scale. The authors suggest that an “administrative effect” may have contributed to the longer delay for black suspects, noting the agencies “offer cultural awareness training, in-depth evaluation of shooting incidents … and provide discipline for any misuse of force.”
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he didn’t know whether deputies participated in the research study. But he said the results did not surprise him, given the cultural training law enforcement receive in the wake of situations like the Rodney King episode in Los Angeles and the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri.
“We’re not trying to be biased in our relations with any groups in society,” Knezovich said.
Straub said police departments across the country could learn from the “tragic” events in Ferguson.
“It shows the challenges as to how we police communities,” the chief said.
James Wilburn, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said that the results of a single study shouldn’t overshadow the challenges that continue to face ethnic minorities in Spokane County compared to other populations. He pointed to statistics from the Washington State Patrol and U.S. Census indicating that more than 57 percent of the black community in Spokane County has been convicted of a crime, compared to just 16 percent of the white population.
“That’s racial profiling if I’ve ever heard of it,” Wilburn said.
All of the law enforcement participants in the study were white. The lab is in its infancy, opening its doors less than a decade ago. Researchers are just now starting to parse the data accumulated from multiple studies, James said.
“There are no key lessons, yet,” she said.
But Straub sees the partnership between WSU and the department as a vital teaching tool. James hopes to change the scenarios to allow for responses from officers other than the use of lethal force. Straub said that would assist his agency as the department seeks more advanced crisis intervention training, which could begin as soon as next year.
The goal of the research is to better understand the issues facing officers who decide whether to use deadly force, James said. The findings of the Spokane study indicate that what James called “inarguable” evidence that police shoot members of ethnic minorities at a greater ratio than whites could be addressed through training or greater cultural awareness. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2001 that black felons were about four times more likely to die at the hands of American police officers in a justifiable homicide than white felons.
James said the experimental design at the Spokane lab enables researchers to peel away other factors that lead to the use of lethal force and focus strictly on race. Participants from more far-flung agencies are signing up for tests in the lab, and James is working to present her findings at academic conferences in addition to the publications.
“There is a woeful lack of statistics,” James said. “I really think we need better statistics and more evidence, to improve the safety of police and the general public.”
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