Psychologists Can Help Reduce Racial Profiling in Policing

Psychologists know the statistic well: Although blacks constitute only 12 percent of America’s population, they represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison inmates. Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, has been studying the consequences of the psychological association between race and crime for more than a decade. Her findings, which she shared Saturday during a plenary address on race and policing in America, reveal the startling ways that race influences us, even when we don’t think it does.

In one seminal study, for example, participants were subliminally primed with a series of black or white faces on a computer screen, and then watched as blurry pictures of guns and knives came into focus. Eberhardt found that participants — no matter their race — tended to recognize the weapons quicker when exposed to black faces in the primer versus white faces.

More recently, her research has shown that informing white people about the disproportionate incarceration rate of blacks makes them likely to support the expansion of harsh punitive policies, such as California’s Three Strikes Law and similar measures in other states.

Despite the pervasiveness of society’s association between blacks and crime, our behavior in response to those unconscious racial biases can be changed, Eberhardt said. Research has shown, for example, that more training — particularly in the use of firearms — can help police officers overcome racial biases.

She also pointed to the potential role of technology in addressing racial biases, noting that mandating police officer use of body cameras can help improve police relations with the public.

“We need to begin to think about this footage as data, not just as courtroom evidence,” she said. “We can look across the thousands of these videotapes to examine, in the aggregate, whether officers do indeed approach African-Americans in a different way than other groups — whether there’s a more negative tone or pitch to the voice, and whether that can predict whether the interaction is going to escalate. The footage can also be used to more fully appreciate the interactions where things go right and where officers have been able to skillfully de-escalate conflict.”


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