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Suspect Race: Causes and Consequences of Racial Profiling

An interview with Professor Jack Glaser on his research concerning racial profiling, stereotyping, and implicit bias, particularly as it pertains to law enforcement.

Suspect Race: Causes and Consequences of Racial Profiling

Suspect Race: Causes and Consequences of Racial Profiling (Oxford University Press, 2014) is the culmination of Professor Jack Glaser’s research on racial profiling, stereotyping and implicit bias, particularly as it pertains to law enforcement.

What is implicit bias and what does it have to do with racial profiling?

Implicit biases are the stereotypes and prejudices that reside and operate in our minds outside of conscious awareness. One commonly held stereotype associates minorities, particularly Blacks, with crime. Many people explicitly repudiate that stereotype, but it is pervasive in our culture so we're all aware of it. Our unconscious is not good at distinguishing between associations that we approve of and those we don't, so merely having the two concepts (Black and crime) associated in our memories causes one to be automatically activated in our thoughts when the other is presented.

When police are making determinations about who is suspicious, and therefore warrants investigation (e.g., being stopped, searched) they are operating under considerable uncertainty—we know this because the overwhelming majority of the time the people they stop for “discretionary” investigatory purposes are not engaged in crime. When we're making decisions under uncertainty, we tend to use cognitive shortcuts. What might feel like a legitimate hunch to a police officer could actually be the influence of a racial stereotype. As a result, stops of Blacks and Latinos tend to be less productive (less likely to yield contraband) than stops of Whites are.

Shootings by police have figured prominently in the news in the past year, especially the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. How might your research speak to such incidents?

Sadly, fatal police shootings of civilians are fairly commonplace, occurring about once a day in the US. A disproportionate amount of the time, these victims are Black.  Of the ten documented fatal shootings of off-duty police officers by on-duty police officers in the last thirty years, nine were Black or Latino, when only about a quarter of American police officers are minorities of any sort. This is a compelling statistic. The same implicit stereotypes that cause officers to see guns faster after seeing a Black face than a White face, or to shoot unarmed Blacks more often than unarmed Whites in “Shooter Task” simulations, almost certainly play a role in the high rate of lethal force used on Black men in America.  

There is also a fear and aggression response that is triggered by those stereotypes. Police officers are human. Put in a situation that they perceive as life-threatening they will be prone to simplistic responses. That's probably why they so often use excessive force, unloading their full clip of bullets into a single suspect. It's a necessity that police officers have a means to protect themselves and the public, of course, but there does seem to be a troubling trend of excessive force, and young Black men are bearing the brunt of it.

What do you hope will be the response of law enforcement leadership to your book?

Everyone is troubled by racial bias in policing, and I think there's an opportunity to get all sides on the same page. In the book, I distinguish between implicit biases and “racism.”  Racism implies an ideology that one racial group is better or more deserving than others. Implicit biases are normal and largely outside of our control. Whether we apply them and act on the consequently biased inference, however, is much more under our control.

Individual situations, contexts and policies differ greatly from place to place, but are there a couple of policy recommendations you'd make to mitigate the role of implicit bias and racial profiling in policing?

The low hanging fruit in terms of policy recommendations is to reduce the discretion officers have in their decisions about whom to stop, question, and search. They currently have tremendous latitude, and that's why most of their stops are unproductive, particularly in the domain of pedestrian stops. We don't want to hamstring officers, but there are ways to reduce the number of stops by being more prescriptive about valid indicators of suspiciousness (vs. inarticulable hunches). To the extent that officers are looking for a relatively small set of legitimate, established signals of criminal behavior, they will stop fewer people (and therefore fewer innocent people) and will have a higher success rate (aka “hit rate”) among those they do stop. The Supreme Court has given officers great latitude, so this policy change will have to come at the legislative or agency administrative level. Legislatures have proven very reluctant to act on this, but I think police chiefs can and will.