You are now in the main content area

Racial bias in community linked to police killings in U.S.

Psychology research makes a connection between geographic areas of racial bias and prevalence of police killings of Blacks
August 01, 2017
Eric Hehman

Photo: Psychology Professor Eric Hehman’s study found that implicit racist bias in communities is a predictor of higher incidents of police killings of African-Americans.

The racial biases of whites predict how many African-Americans are killed by police in a given area, more so than their presence in the population would predict. The results of this groundbreaking external,study, entitled Disproportionate use of lethal force in policing is associated with regional racial biases of Residents, appeared recently in the journalexternal, external,Social Psychological and Personality Science.                         

Lead researcher Eric Hehman, professor of psychology at Ryerson University, along with Jessica Flake (York University), and Jimmy Calanchini (Albert-Ludwigs-Univeristat Freiburg), developed a predictive model of lethal force by integrating crowd-sourced and fact-checked lethal force databases with regional demographics and measures of geolocated implicit and explicit racial biases collected from 2,156,053 residents across the United States.

Analyzing data of 875 people killed by police from January 1, 2015 to September 30, 2015, Black people represented 22.76 per cent of all involved deaths, but constituted only 11.76 per cent of the population in those areas. Yet out of models including 14 sociodemographic variables, it was only the psychological factor—regional implicit biases toward Blacks or the implicit stereotypical association between Blacks and weapons—which predicted Blacks being killed by police. Where these biases were stronger, more African-Americans were killed by police.

The results, says Hehman, “indicate that this is not specifically a problem of police officers, but reveal that there is something about the broader communities and contexts in which these officers make quick, life and death decisions that is associated with killing more African-Americans.”

Hehman and colleagues looked at the use of lethal force for whites and Blacks, as compiled in The Guardian newspaper’s database entitled “The Counted,” and linked it with bias data from “Project Implicit” at Harvard and demographics from the 2010 U.S. Census.

“We expected many economic or demographic variables such as the overall wealth of an area, residential segregation, average levels of education in the area, or overall crime levels, to be involved,” says Hehman. “However, they were not.  Instead, it was implicit bias, or the strength of peoples’ association between specific social groups and threat, that was the primary predictor.”

“In addition to the mandated reporting of those killed by police, we would like to see the emphasis shift away from police officer blame and shame to the cultural and contextual circumstances that lead to lethal force,” said Flake, research fellow in the Department of Psychology at York University. “Police officers operate in these contexts and we need to shift the discussion to how we can change communities, to not only protect the people living in them, but support officers in doing their work.”                 

In order to get accurate data, it was important for Hehman and his team to rule out alternative explanations for the killings, by including factors like socioeconomic status or education level in their statistical models. Unfortunately, the implementation of the voluntary long-form census made this sort of data unreliable in Canada, so the researchers had to pursue their work in the United States.

“The number of individuals killed by police by region is not available in Canada,” added Hehman. ‘However, we have no reason to believe that our findings—that regional biases are associated with police officer decisions—are limited to the United States. We have plans to extend our analyses to Canada and elsewhere in the future.”

Figure accompanying Eric Hehman

Photo: This map depicts areas in the United States where there are more or less disproportionate Black deaths by police relative to the percentage of Blacks in the local population. Areas in red represent more Blacks being killed; blue represents more whites killed; and white represent the number of deaths commensurate with those expected from population statistics.