As reported in The New York Times a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado (Boulder), and the Denver Police Department reports that police officers have a greater ability than civilians to set aside racial bias when deciding whether to fire on potentially armed suspects. Participants pushed a button to either shoot or hold fire in response to rapidly viewing 50 threatening video images of men, half of them black and half of them white, each shown once carrying a weapon and again carrying something non-threatening. Response times showed the effects of racial stereotyping: “[b]oth officers and civilians took 10 to 20 milliseconds longer to make a decision when they saw either an unarmed black man, or an armed white man, compared to the other images. This tiny twitch of time reflects the cultural expectation that it is black men who are more likely to have a gun, experts say, and some studies suggest that blacks as well as whites are susceptible to it.” When pushing the “shoot” button the police officers, however, disregarded race, firing at about 13% of both unarmed black men and unarmed white men. Civilians shot at about 35% of unarmed black men and 29% of unarmed white men. The researchers ran the trial again and reached the same results, concluding that police are “less trigger-happy” than the public at large. The test did not take into account all of the factors that go into a police officer pulling the trigger, such as the effect of a hostile crowd or the influence of other police officers, but one doubts that untrained civilians would resist those forces better than police officers.
These findings bear on the recent posts about the Second Amendment (here, here, and here). Police officers shot the wrong person 13% of the time in laboratory conditions. Pro-gun forces presented the Virginia Tech shootings as an illustration why more citizens should carry weapons. The study suggests that, given the opportunity to shoot, armed civilians would injure or kill two to three times as many unarmed persons as do the police. In a situation requiring an armed civilian to make a split-second decision to fire, an unarmed black man faces better than a 1-in-3 chance of being shot. Unarmed white men fare only somewhat-less-fatal odds.