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Police Violence Depends on Community-level Racial Bias

The racial biases of whites in a community predicts police use of lethal force against black Americans

Freiburg, Aug 16, 2017

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Philando Castiles – these are just some of the names in the increasing number of news reports about black Americans being shot by police in the US in the last few years. Most of these cases involved men who were unarmed and had no criminal record or intent. This has resulted in widespread public outcry. Were these men the victims of the racism of white Americans? A new study shows a relationship between lethal police force and racial bias. Social cognition researcher Dr. Jimmy Calanchini, who is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Freiburg, and his colleagues have discovered the following: The racial biases of whites against blacks in a given region predicts how likely it is that black Americans are killed by police in that region. The research team used a big-data approach to create the first statistical model for using racial bias to predict lethal police force. They recently published the results of their research in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Calanchini and his fellow cognitive scientists studied the so-called "implicit bias" of more than two million Americans all over the United States. Implicit bias refers to the more or less subconscious views people have about people they meet. Is a person friendly or stand-offish, good or bad, harmless or dangerous? In their work, the group chose a new approach: Instead of studying the implicit biases of individual police officers against different racial groups, they focused on the context in which police work normally takes place. The scientists combined data from police databases with demographic factors from different areas, along with the implicit and explicit biases of people living in those areas.

"We expected certain economic and demographic factors to play a role – like standard of living, level of education, and crime levels in a given region," said Calanchini. "But in fact it was the implicit biases of the residents and how strongly they associate certain social groups with threat that predicts how likely police will use violence." Black Americans are especially affected by this. Calanchini added, "In areas where bias against them is strong, there is a greater likelihood that they will be killed by police." The researchers stressed, however, that this is not specifically a problem of the police. Calanchini said, "Our research showed that regional context plays a role in how police make speedy life-or-death decisions."
However, Calanchini cautioned against drawing strong conclusions about racism causing police behavior. "One interpretation of our results might be that the racial biases of the community cause police to use more lethal force against black Americans. However, another interpretation might be that, in regions where Black Americans are killed by police for any variety of reasons, these cases may get covered in local news and, consequently, people in the community become more biased against black Americans. Based on these data, we cannot rule out either explanation at this time."

Jimmy Calanchini earned his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California, Davis, in the US. He has been a visiting researcher in Social Psychology and Methodology at the Department of Psychology of the University of Freiburg since August 2016. He is a recipient of a two-year post-doc fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Calanchini's co-authors on this project are Eric Hehman, Ph.D, of Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and Jessica K. Flake of York University in Toronto, Canada.

Original Publication:
Eric Hehman, Jessica Flake, Jimmy Calanchini: Disproportionate use of lethal force in policing is associated with regional racial biases of residents. In: Social Psychological and Personality Science.


Dr. Jimmy Calanchini
Department of Psychology
University of Freiburg