Thursday, July 07, 2016

Deadly Stereotypes

This video is hard to watch but important to think about and learn from:

Here's what appears to have happened. At around 9pm on July 6, Philando Castile was stopped for a broken taillight while driving in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, Lavisha Reynolds, and her young daughter. On being asked for his license and registration, Castile informed the officer that he had a firearm in the vehicle, and a concealed carry permit. He then reached for his wallet and was fatally shot. The video above captures the aftermath of the shooting, and was streamed live to a facebook account by Reynolds. 

The incident immediately brought to mind the shooting of Levar Jones by Sean Groubert in September 2014, which was captured on the officer's dashcam video. Again, there was a traffic stop, a request for documents, and multiple shots fired as Jones reached for his wallet:

Jones was hit but survived the shooting, and Groubert would later plead guilty to assault and battery.

What ties these incidents together is that they seem to have been motivated primarily by fear rather than anger or malice. Moreover, this fear turned out to have been unwarranted: neither Jones nor Castile posed an objective threat to the respective officers. The same was true of Amadou Diallo back in 1999, and in the more recent cases of Tamir Rice and John Crawford.

Whether or not the fear was reasonable under the individual circumstances of each case is harder to ascertain, and there is usually enough doubt to preclude criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, there are rare instances in which the unreasonableness of the fear is recognized: Groubert's employment with the South Carolina Department of Public Safety was terminated on the explicit grounds that he "reacted to a perceived threat where there was none."

A question of great moral and social importance is whether or not such fear is driven, in part, by exaggerated stereotypes of black male violence held by some subset of officers. The anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that such stereotypes matter on average, even if they are not implicated in every case. There is also some evidence of implicit bias from video game simulations.

Further evidence can be found in a dataset assembled by The Guardian. According to this source, there were a total of 1,145 police killings in 2015 alone, about half of which involved suspects armed with a gun. A further 13% of those killed were armed with a knife. There is no question, therefore that police officers often face armed and dangerous suspects. However, 18% of whites killed by police in 2015 were unarmed while 52% had a gun; the corresponding figures for blacks were 25% and 46%. This suggests that within the set of encounters that result in police killings, those involving black suspects are less objectively threatening to the officers involved. One possible explanation is that any given encounter is more likely to be perceived by the officer as threatening when the suspect happens to be black.

In the Guardian data, slightly more than half of those killed by police were white, 27% were black, and 17% Latino. The proportion of those killed who were black is roughly the same as the proportion of total arrestees who are black, which has led some to argue that "removing police racial bias will have little effect on the killing rate." But this claim depends on the questionable assumption that encounters involving black citizens are as likely to be objectively threatening to officers and encounters with white citizens. As I have argued previously, there are reasons to believe that they are not.

The health of our society depends on an effective and trusted criminal justice system. In fact, the system cannot be effective if it isn't trusted. Distrust makes witnesses to crimes unwilling to come forward and depresses clearance rates. This allows serious crimes, including homicide, to be committed with impunity. Fear of homicide victimization raises incentives for preemptive killing, resulting in epidemics of violence. At the heart of it all are stereotypes, affecting interactions between victims and offenders, parties to disputes, prosecutors and witnesses, and officers and suspects. And the very same stereotypes also affect the urgency and concern with which the general public views mass incarceration

What can be done? The screening and training of officers has got to take into account the possibility that stereotypes can be deadly. Psychologists have found that exposure to counterstereotypical exemplars can reduce implicit bias, and residency requirements can serve as a screening device. Finally, the construction of a complete and consistent national database of incidents remains imperative. Public action requires broad engagement with the issue and some agreement on the nature of the problem, and this will not be possible while arguments continue to rely on anecdotal and indirect evidence. Such evidence is too quickly dismissed by skeptics and too easily filtered by stereotypes, no matter how shocking and heartbreaking and deeply persuasive a sympathetic observer finds it to be.


  1. My dominant take-away from this is that the average level of US police training is often poor. (As I understand it, there are major differences in rates between jurisdictions even after controlling for local crime rates.) In too many jurisdictions, police shoot too much and too readily: apparently somewhat more with black suspects but too much in general. I am not sure that focusing so much on racial bias (rather than putting that as part of a more general problem) is a helpful response, given it seems to trigger pre-set rhetorical responses.

    1. Lorenzo, I agree about the high level of shooting in general, and the likely pre-set rhetorical responses to this post. I wrote about stereotypes because this is something I've worked on and understand a little (see links in post for examples). It's part of the larger picture of identity and group inequality in the US, which goes well beyond the criminal justice system.

  2. Some interesting thoughts here:

    And also here:

    1. Thanks for the links. The RCP piece provides supportive evidence for my point that one can't just compare arrest rates to victimization rates in identifying bias; the suicide-by-cop cases involve warranted fear and reasonable preemption. I recently came across the following, haven't read it yet:

  3. I often think these categories (black, white, Hispanic) obscure too much at times, though. There's a lot of diversity in each group that becomes sidelined by fitting into these homogenous racial categories.
    If you account for, for example, some sub categories based on class, culture, region etc, what would the data show? For example take the group poor southern white. I'm not sure if any analysis has been done on this group, or if there's a possible way of defining this group without just giving you the answers you want, but analysing at a more precise level might give us a clearer picture of how important race is, and his important factors like class or ethnicity are.

    1. I wish we had the data to look at this but the data we have is just too patchy and poor. My feeling is that race is significant even independently of class because class is not as easily visible and does not trigger stereotypes to quite the same degree. But we need better data.