FSU study shows training reverses racial bias in police responses

A Florida State University study has examined racial bias in law enforcement responses to criminal suspects and the efficacy of training to eradicate it. The research led by FSU assistant professor of psychology E. Ashby Plant will appear in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Plant asked 50 patrol police officers to complete a computer exercise featuring pictures of African-American and Caucasian male criminal suspects whose faces were randomly superimposed with images of either guns or neutral objects like wallets or cell phones.

Participants made simulated "shoot" or "don’t shoot" decisions based on split-second perceptions of whether or not the suspect was armed. During the study’s early trials, officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot at an unarmed black suspect than at an unarmed white suspect. In contrast, when the suspect was armed, the officers were slightly more likely to mistakenly not shoot a white suspect than a black one.

However, the racial bias revealed in officers’ initial reactions — similar to bias observed in responses from undergraduate students in a previous study — was eliminated after extensive training with a computer simulation in which the virtual suspect’s race was unrelated to the presence of a weapon. Plant calls this reversal "heartening."

"The findings have important implications for both the elimination of racial biases in general and the training of police officers more specifically," said Plant, who co-authored the study with FSU graduate student Michelle Peruche. "Although racial bias related to long-standing stereotypes of Black males exists, it is not inevitable."

Media may request a PDF of the article by contacting the publisher at journalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net. To access the abstract online, go to
www.blackwell-synergy.com and follow the links to the March edition of Psychological Science.