Research roundup: racial bias, stereotyping and attitudes about police

These summaries can help psychologists frame conversations with clients about race, violence, law enforcement and police-community relations.

Like much of the U.S., psychologists and their clients have been reacting to the apparent escalation of violent and deadly encounters between police officers and citizens of color this year. This research roundup looks at some of the current psychological research on racial bias, stereotyping and attitudes about police.

An estimated 642 people have been killed by police so far in 2016, including Philando Castile and Alton Sterling this summer (Swaine, Laughland, Lartey, Davis, Harris, Popovich & Team, 2016). Per million, an estimated 5.49 Native Americans, 3.91 African-Americans, 1.54 whites and .56 Asian/Pacific Islanders have been killed by police this year.

Meanwhile, an estimated 70 police offers have been killed in the line of duty in 2016. Of those deaths, nearly half were a result of gunfire, both accidental and intentional (Officer Down Memorial Page, 2016). The killings of five Dallas, Texas, officers and three officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July may be the most visible and emblematic deaths of this group.

The following research summaries are intended to help psychologists frame difficult conversations about police brutality, race, violence against law enforcement officers, and police-community relations with their clients. In addition, psychologists should seek and review additional research that may be useful in practice, as well as maintain good self-care practices to help them cope outside of work. 

Kahn, K.B., Lee, J. K., Renauer, B., Henning, K., & Stewart, G. (July 25, 2016). The effects of perceived phenotypic racial stereotypicality and social identity threat on racial minorities’ attitudes about police. The Journal of Social Psychology. (Epub ahead of print). DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2016.1215967

To examine attitudes about policing, the authors surveyed a random sample of 1,200 residents of Portland, Oregon. Of that sample, 168 participants were part of a racial minority group. Participants were asked about their self-rated phenotypic racial stereotypicality, likelihood of cooperation with the police and trust in police.

The authors found that minority participants who reported phenotypic racial stereotypicality feared that they would be mistreated by police, resulting in a heightened distrust of law enforcement officers. The same relationship was not found in white participants. 

These results provide additional evidence for race-based social identity threat, which occurs when an individual feels de-individualized and grouped with the negative stereotypes associated with their race. Past research has suggested that social identity threats have negatively influenced police-minority interactions.

The authors of this study recommend further examination of the racial dynamics of police-minority interaction in order to understand the psychological, contextual, and individual factors that may influence racial minorities’ attitudes toward police.

Park, S.H., & Kim, H.J. (2015). Assumed race moderates spontaneous racial bias in a computer-based police simulation. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 18(3), 252-257. DOI: 10.1111/ajsp.12106

Korean students have been exposed to Black and White stereotypes through media and entertainment but generally do not have much direct experience with either population. In a computer-based police simulation, 152 Korean college students were randomly assigned to play the role of either a White or Black officer. The participants were assigned a computer-based “first person shooter task” (FPST), in which they had to decide whether to shoot or not shoot a potential armed or unarmed target. The first target was presented without racial manipulation, and then the second utilized either a White or Black racial manipulation.

The authors found that priming participants to play the role of either a Black or White officer did affect their responses to the targets. Participants assigned the role of a White officer displayed consistently biased reactions against Black targets, while participants assigned the role of Black officer displayed less biased reactions toward Black targets. These responses in the FPST simulation can be interpreted as reflections of implicit bias.

Clinical Implications

These studies suggest that members of racial minority groups may have a heightened sense of unfair treatment relative to their physical resemblance to racial stereotypes, and that merely playing the role of a member of one racial group or another can influence your perception of people who are Black.

In treating clients impacted by this violence, psychologists should be sensitive to the tensions between police officers and minority communities. Psychologists are already familiar with the concept of implicit bias, but it may be helpful to take an online implicit bias test to get feedback about their own biases and better understand how these attitudes are shaped.