Why It’s Ok For Cops To Admit They’re Racist

Let me state from the get-go that this article is not intended to be anti-police in any way, nor is it meant to excuse prejudice police behavior. My intention is to call some attention to facts (i.e. police have biases), encourage acknowledgment of these facts, so ultimately we can address them.


Yup. It’s super sad, and super awful, but it’s true, and ignoring it isn’t going help anything or anyone. Now, I’m not talking about overt racism i.e. someone that just sits around thinking about how much they hate black people all the time. I’m talking about implicit bias against black people that is so ingrained in our culture and society that it can still sneak into our brain despite our best efforts to be decent humans. Implicit biases are outside of our conscious awareness. You might have an explicit bias against Pepsi, such that when you ask for Coke and your server asks “is Pepsi ok?” you say “sure” but in your head you’re saying “OF COURSE IT’S NOT OK YOU IDIOT!” An implicit bias, on the other hand, might cause you take the seat next to the white guy on the subway instead of the black man, without even giving it a thought.

One way we know about implicit bias is through the research of Greenwald, McGhee, & Shwartz (1998), and their Implicit Association Test, which essentially measures how we automatically associated things. The idea being that we’re not always aware of the associations our brain makes, but they can nevertheless influence our behavior. How it works is a person sits at a computer and on the screen there’s a word (e.g. “good”) in the top-left corner, and the top right corner (e.g. “bad”). Another word appears in the middle (e.g. “puppies”), and you quickly press one button to pair it with the top-left word, or another button if it goes with the top-right word. So it starts off easy enough: “puppies – good – left! Done.”

Then the test gets tricky – it starts to put two words in the left corner and two words in the right corner. It might start by putting the words African American/Good in one corner, and European American/bad in the other, and then eventually it switches them; African American/Bad and European American/Good. The target item that appears in the middle might be a common African American or white name, or even a picture of a face. The test measures the time it takes you to respond. The idea is if you implicitly find the two words compatible, it’s much easier to associate another word with them and you’ll answer faster: “Black and bad, yup, left button/White and good, yup, right button. Done.” vs. “well they’re black but not bad, that doesn’t make sense… what do I pick? Umm I dunno, ok left button?” The results aren’t so much about the actual pairings you make, but how much time it takes you to respond given different pairings. Confused? Go ahead and take the test for free here.

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to find that among test takers of all races, about 70% show an automatic preference for whites. Eighty eight percent of white people show a bias towards white people, and even 50% of Black Americans show an automatic white preference. That means that the results aren’t just due to an automatic bias towards faces similar to ours (though that’s probably part of it), but also due to what our culture has overtly or subliminally taught us.

But wait, it gets scarier. Another similar test flashes pictures of objects in front of you for split second, and you have half a second to push a button categorizing it as a “tool” or a “weapon” : picture of a screw driver – tool, picture of a gun – weapon. The tricky part is that before the picture of the object is flashed, a picture of a white or black person’s face is flashed. The idea being that if you categorize a gun as a weapon more quickly when its preceded by a black face than a white face, your mind has an implicit association between black people and guns or threat. In addition, researchers found that when an image of a black person was flashed first, participants were more likely to mistake a tool as a weapon. These were just split second images of faces. – no threatening behavior, no criminal history… just seeing a black person made people assume objects were weapons. Now think how this applies to police officers when they see someone reach for their wallet, or holding a cell phone, etc.

But Police are highly trained professionals that wouldn’t make these mistakes, right?

Another test had police officers look at various images of men (some black, some white) holding object in their hand (some weapons, some harmless) and hit a button to “shoot” or “not shoot”. Results showed that police officers were quicker to shoot if the armed person was black, slower to not shoot if the unarmed person was black, and more likely mistakenly shoot if the unarmed person was black. The cops were more accurate in their decisions compared to participants from the general public, but were still influenced by racial bias. Even with all their training, assuming police are immune to bias might be too high a standard to hold them to. So let’s just acknowledge that police have biases like most other people.

2. Cops Have To Make Super Important Decisions Super Fast.

All the tests described above involve participants making split second decisions, based off of information presented for a split second. The reason being that when we have time we can apply logic are hopefully less affected by automatic biases, but when we don’t have time, we can’t help but be influenced preferences and assumptions that we don’t even realize are lurking in our brain.  Most of us aren’t in these high pressure situations often, but ya know who are? Cops. Like all the time. Not only do they have to make split second decision, but the consequences of those decisions can mean either saving a life or ending a life. So because they’re going to be in these situations the most often, with the biggest consequences, all the more reason to simply acknowledge that cops have racial biases – and it doesn’t make them evil – but (more than in possibly any other profession) it does need to be addressed.

3. Uniforms Can Make Us Primed For Aggression

Spec ops police officersSWAT

Research suggests that simply being in a uniform can increase aggression by the process of deindividuation. Deindividuation means to lose a sense of individual identity. Things like being part of a crowd, identifying with a certain role, wearing a uniform, wearing a mask (or anything that covers your face) all lead to deindividuation by decreased emphasis on your unique identity. When we feel less of a sense of identity, we feel more anonymous and less personal responsibility for our actions. Research has found that athletes act more aggressively when in uniform than in their own clothes (Rehm et al., 1987), participants were more likely administer shocks to another person if they were wearing a lab coat and hood (Zimbardo, 1969). Deindividuation is also more likely to occur in times of increased arousal. Now, police uniforms serve important purposes; they help us identify a police officer when we need them, they make us feel safer when they’re around (well, if you’re white anyway), and they make people less likely to act criminally when they’re present. They’re also sexy. However, it’s still important to acknowledge that officers’ uniforms are another thing stacked against them when taken into consideration with any implicit biases they might have, and the high pressure situations they’re involved in.

4. Mere Presence of Weapons Increases Aggression

Police Officer grabbing his gun

In addition to their uniforms priming them for aggression, police officers’ guns are doing the same. A wealth of research has demonstrated that just knowing a gun is near increases aggressive behavior. An early study found that participants issued higher levels of shock to another person after seeing a gun on a table nearby (Berkowitz & Lepage, 1967). Since then 56 published studies replicated the findings that the mere sight of weapons increases aggression in both angry and non angry individuals (Carlson, Marcus-Newhall, & Miller, 1990).

In Summary

Police officers (like anyone else) have implicit racial biases that can make them more likely to assume black Americans are dangerous, and even armed. The high pressure, quick decisions that police officers need to make, leaves them particularly likely to be influenced by implicit biases. Situations of high arousal, their uniforms, and the presence of guns all make it more likely that when they act quickly – and with racial bias – they’ll act aggressively.

I think it’s really important for me to clarify again that this post is not intended to be anti-police AT ALL. Nor am I claiming that no police are explicitly racist – Sadly, I’m sure there are racists in every profession, but I hope they’re the exception. The point I’m trying to make is that all of us have unconscious biases, even the most well meaning of us. Most of us we can get through life without our implicit biases being noticed very much or resulting in immediate dramatic consequences. Police officers on the other hand, because they are brave enough to enter a profession of such high risk and responsibility, are particularly vulnerable to acting on their implicit biases due to the split second decisions they have frequently have to make. Unlike most of us, police officers’ split second decisions can result in life or death consequences – a burden I would never want to carry.

Most people really don’t want to identify as racist – which is a good thing, except when that strong desire stops us from being aware of our automatic biases. The taboo of racism makes it very controversial to accuse a police officer of being racist, or for a police officer to admit having bias – but ignoring the facts won’t save anyone’s life. It’s totally acceptable to have a deep respect and appreciation for police officers in general, while acknowledging that they have the same biases as anyone else. In fact, I think it’s only fair to officers, to acknowledge this, and make sure they are provided with whatever preventative/protective training possible so that they are less likely to make a life threatening or ending mistake due to their automatic biases.

So what could we do about it?

Most research suggests that the first and biggest step to reducing implicit bias is to become aware of it. It wouldn’t be difficult to have police officers take the IAT and get an idea of their own level of bias. Once that’s known, interventions appropriate to the level of bias of the officer could be offered. Research has actually determined a number of strategies to reduce implicit bias such as Stereotype Replacement, Counter-stereotypic Imaging, Individuation, Perspective Taking, and increasing opportunities for contact. I won’t get into the details of each of these, you can read about them here, but the point is – they exist – and we should use them.

Interested in learning more? Here’s some people smarter than me covering the issue:

Blind Spot: Hidden Bias of Good People
The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men
The Neuroscience Behind Why White Cops Kill Black Men
Black-on-black Racism: The Hazards of Implicit Bias

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