How Racial Bias Affects Police Use of Deadly Force

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Phi;adelphia Protest. Photo by Joe Piette via Flickr

A police officer is more likely to feel threatened enough to use deadly force if a suspect is African American, “even when there are no other obvious circumstances during the encounter that would make the use of deadly force reasonable,” says a study published in the Boston University Law Review.

“Black suspects are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than are persons of other racial or ethnic groups,”  the study found.

The stark conclusion, based on a study of 3,933 police killings since 2013, underlines the need to pay greater attention to implicit bias in the training of officers, write authors Jeffrey Fagan and Alexis D. Campbell of Columbia Law School.

The study argued that Crisis Intervention Training, which aims to help police recognize when suspects are undergoing deep emotional stress or mental health crises, has little effect on reducing the disproportional racial impact of fatal police shootings, according to the study, originally written as a Columbia University Public Law Research Paper.

The authors also examined data from the Washington Post Police Shootings Database in an effort to probe what they termed the “intersection of race and reasonableness” in the use of deadly force by law enforcement.

The use of force is considered “reasonable” if police officers believe there is probable cause to think that a suspect “poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” When a fatality results, an investigation is held to determine whether the “reasonable” standard was met.

But the study suggested “reasonableness” is interpreted differently depending on “the social and demographic structure of places where police killings take place.”

The case of a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident named Saheed Vassell was one example. Vassell had bipolar disorder and local patrol officers from the 71st Precinct knew of his condition, and were “well aware of his recurring episodes of mental illness.” He had no history of violence.

However, Vassell was one day seen waving a pipe that looked like a gun to a passerby who was not from the neighborhood. A 911 call about “a man with a gun” resulted in uniformed officers from another unit in the precinct dispatched to the scene. Ten shots were fired, and Vassell was killed.

The details in Vassell’s case highlight the “recurring dynamics” that are seen in police killings across the U.S. each year, the authors said: a young, African-American male (24 percent of cases), acting “erratically” and possibly suffering from a mental health crisis (25.4 percent of cases), coming toe-to-toe with a police officer who is frightened and armed.

In another case, the 2014 killing by a Cleveland police officer of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was holding a toy gun, demonstrates how racial factors, among others, affect an officer’s belief that he is justified in using force to counter a threat to his life.

The authors say such incidents illustrate a “lack of preparation for, or understanding of, the surroundings and context of an encounter,” noting that police often are pulled into tense situations without knowing the full context, which leads to jumping to conclusions in a “split-second” response that can turn seemingly routine calls deadly.

Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) aimed at helping handle situations where someone is experiencing a mental health crisis or deep emotional turmoil is now widely used by law enforcement agencies. But it hasn’t reduced the odds that an encounter will turn fatal when African Americans or Latinx are involved, the authors said their findings demonstrated.

“We find no evidence that enhanced police training focused on mental health crises can reduce the incidence of fatal police shootings of persons in mental health crisis or [reduce the] racial and ethnic disparities generally in police killings,” the authors wrote.

Instead, they suggest, refocusing CIT training in a way that takes race into account “in officers’ perceptions of risk.”

“A professional toolkit that trains officers to respond with less-than-lethal force could shift the framework of what is reasonable under a given set of circumstances,” the study said.

Other recommendations include:

      • Race-conscious content be must be developed consistent with what we understand about both explicit bias and implicit bias;
      • Questioning the decisions of officers with attention to perceptions of race and threat; and,
      • Agencies must be ready and committed to undertake new measures to reduce racial disparities.

Jeffrey Fagan is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. He also holds the position of Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and has been a visiting professor at Yale Law School.

Alexis D. Campbell is a member of the Columbia Law School Class graduating class of 2020. She is a current Law Clerk at an international law firm and has published multiple papers on fatal police shootings.

The full report can be accessed here.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano

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