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Decreased Crime, Increased Racism:
Why Implicit Bias in Policing
is a Serious Issue

by Charlotte Ruhl | Fall 2019

Implicit biases are defined as any unconsciously held set of associations about a social group.  In the United States, these unintentional thoughts and beliefs help explain police discrimination within the criminal justice system. Even though crime rates in this country are actually decreasing, the current issue is not centered on trends in crime rates but on the identity of the players representing these statistics. After close examination, it becomes evident that these are racial minority communities that fall victim to biases in policing. These implicit racial biases plague the criminal justice system and have served as an impetus for large-scale public outrage and social protest. It is important to both recognize that implicit biases create extensive problems in this country and simultaneously work towards developing feasible solutions that can institute a positive structural change.   

4. Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”.

5. Harris, D. A. (2002). Racial profiling revisited: “Just common sense” in the fight against terror? Criminal Justice, 17, 36-41.

8. Najdowski, Bottoms, & Goff, “Stereotype threat and racial differences in citizens’ experiences of police encounters”

10. DOJ. (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

11. DOJ, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department”.

12. Kahn, K. B., & Martin, K. D. (2016). Policing and race: disparate treatment, perceptions, and policy responses. Social Issues and Policy Review, 10(1), 82-121.

13. Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”.

15. Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”.

spike in media usage over the past decade has forced citizens to become hyper aware of criminal activity in the United States.  Publicization of crime has served to provide an availability heuristic that allows individuals to be more vigilant and view law enforcement as a threat. As a result of this overall increased sense of fear and animosity towards police officers, it becomes obvious to many that crime rates are increasing. However, that is not actually the case.  Since 1993, violent crime rates have fallen 49%, despite the media’s efforts to paint the picture that crime rates are spiking.[1] Nonetheless, the focus of the issue is not on the quantity of crimes, but rather on the groups who unjustly fall victim to the law and are arrested in disproportionate numbers, namely minority communities.  This is a consequence of the usage of implicit racial biases to target members of such groups, whether through the form of increased policing in these geographic areas, stopping and searching racial minorities more than White individuals, or arresting more Black individuals without probable cause. The fact that crime rates are decreasing is a result of anything other than the racist practices within the law enforcement sector. It is crucial that a push to reduce unnecessary violence against racial minorities occurs alongside a larger structural change. 

Empirical studies embody extensive data revealing that police officers are implicitly racially biased. An investigation led by Katherine Spencer at the University of Berkeley examined the implicit bias that Blacks are more likely to commit a crime than White individuals in light of high-profile cases of unarmed Black young men being fatally shot.[2]  Police officers are not outwardly discriminatory, but rather do so on a more unconscious level. While implicit biases themselves do not directly cause biased policing, they influence internal judgments that then lead acts of prejudice. One key process that Spencer discusses as a way of leading to these judgments is that of misattribution ⁠— attributing events or experiences to the incorrect cause. To test this, Spencer primed participants with Black and White faces, finding that when subjects were primed with Black faces, they would evaluate subsequent stimuli more negatively than when the same stimuli followed a White face.[3] Another crucial experiment she ran was to test the power of disambiguation ⁠— the principle that individuals rely more on stereotypes when trying to resolve uncertain circumstances.  In the lab setting, participants were faster at recognizing weapons when they became de-pixelated (the degree of ambiguity) when they followed images of faces than when they followed images of White faces.[4] Together, these studies reveal the presence of implicit biases in policing, even though these biases come without reason.  

 

While the literature illustrates that implicit biases guide the judgments of law enforcement members, these biases are not backed by evidence that underrepresented minority groups are necessarily more dangerous. Certain studies use hit rates ⁠— the rates at which police find drugs, guns, ammunition or whatever else they seek ⁠— as a measurement of the ineffectiveness of race-based stops.  Researcher David Harris revealed that targeting certain racial groups does not improve policing, as demonstrated through the finding that hit rates were much lower for race-based stops.[5]  But these police officers develop these implicit biases that motivate them to commit race-based stops largely due to the fact that the media works to create the perception that minority groups are more dangerous than they actually are. One study of 2014 late-night news outlets in New York City found that the media reported on murder, theft, and assault cases in which Black people were suspects at a rate that was much higher than the actual rates for these crimes.[6]  

 

Unfortunately, the media and police officers are not the only agents contributing to implicit biases.  Many psychological concepts help  explain why Black individuals and other targets of racial discrimination actually buy into these stereotypes, further perpetuating a polarizing racial divide in America. Stereotype threat is a key principle that causes Black individuals to act in a way that the police commonly perceives as indicative of deception.[7] A 2015 study led by Cynthia Najdowski demonstrated that Black men anticipated stereotype threat in a hypothetical police encounter.[8] Not only are biases subconscious for police officers, but they are also embedded in the minds of the victims.  The same study found that Blacks performed lower on tests when they were told that they are lower in intelligence.[9] This same idea can be applied to the criminal context in the sense that police officers and media make it obvious that they view minority individuals as more of a threat, so this idea becomes internalized, and as a result, members of these minority communities start to act in ways that align with these stereotypes.  If police officers can work to reduce these implicit biases, then, in turn, victims will behave in such a way that makes them appear less likely to be engaging in a criminal act.

 

Not only is there evidence that implicit biases are without substance, but research also reveals that law enforcement officers are guilty of unnecessarily using explicit force and violence and disproportionately arresting Black individuals and other racial minorities. In response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the Department of Justice spearheaded an investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD). After careful investigation, it was disclosed that the FPD was guilty of conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.[10] The FPD also committed multiple unwanted arrests of innocent individuals. For example, in 2011, two sisters were arrested for backing onto their driveway ⁠— one was arrested only because she got out of the car when she was ordered to stay inside.[11] Instances like these clearly reflect prejudices within the police department that are largely driven by implicit biases. The number of arrests of black individuals is also largely disproportionate to the total number of individuals who comprise this demographic. In 2013, the federal prison population was 37% Black, but they only comprised 15% of the U.S. population.[12] While it is not the only solution, working towards removing implicit biases will help reduce these unjust arrests and provide less extreme statistics.  

 

There are clear, tangible solutions that can work towards solving these issues of prejudice, however, they need to be implemented on a greater scale in order to bring about the necessary change for granting equality and representation to marginalized communities. Such a solution could come in the form of increased intergroup contact ⁠— non-negative interaction with out-group members who controvert group-based stereotypes.[13]  Agency-level interventions are also crucial for bringing about a structural change. It is vital that police departments improve their training on racial bias and shift towards a policy of community-oriented policing ⁠— a proactive, problem-solving approach with active collaboration from local citizens who support the police.[14] An additional step would be trying to diversify the police force as well as banning racial profiling, for it is a pseudoscientific approach.[15] While these solutions are not perfect, together they can serve as the steppingstones to creating a positive change.  

 

The racial injustice plaguing the criminal justice system is an extremely complicated problem. There are many factors contributing to this issue, but at the same time, there are many plausible solutions that can be integrated together to increase representation and equality  for minority communities. This will, in turn, allow these groups to place more trust in the police task force, so long as law enforcement agencies make valiant efforts to help reduce implicit biases. These biases are detrimental for addressing a divided society, and it is not until people can consciously work towards removing unconscious biases that fewer arrests will occur, thus decreasing crime rates even more than they are currently. 

 

REFERENCES

[1] Gramlich, J. (2019, January 3). 5 facts about crime in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/03/5-facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/.

[2] Spencer, K. B., Charbonneau, A. K., & Glaser, J. (2016). Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(1), 50-63.

[3] Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”

[4] Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”

[5] Harris, D. A. (2002). Racial profiling revisited: “Just common sense” in the fight against terror? Criminal Justice, 17, 36-41.

[6] Desmond-Harris, J. (2015, March 26). NYC media coverage of black suspects is way out of proportion with black arrest rates. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/3/26/8296091/media-bias-race-crime.

[7] Najdowski, C. J., Bottoms, B. L., & Goff, P. A. (2015). Stereotype threat and racial differences in citizens’ experiences of police encounters. Law and Human Behavior, 39, 463–477.

[8] Najdowski, Bottoms, & Goff, “Stereotype threat and racial differences in citizens’ experiences of police encounters”

[9] Najdowski, Bottoms, & Goff, 2015

[10] DOJ. (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

[11] DOJ, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department”

[12] Kahn, K. B., & Martin, K. D. (2016). Policing and race: disparate treatment, perceptions, and policy responses. Social Issues and Policy Review, 10(1), 82-121.

[13] Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”

[14] Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”

[15] Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”

1. Gramlich, J. (2019, January 3). 5 facts about crime in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/03/5-facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/.

2. Spencer, K. B., Charbonneau, A. K., & Glaser, J. (2016). Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(1), 50-63.

3. Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”.

6. Desmond-Harris, J. (2015, March 26). NYC media coverage of black suspects is way out of proportion with black arrest rates. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/3/26/8296091/media-bias-race-crime.

7. Najdowski, C. J., Bottoms, B. L., & Goff, P. A. (2015). Stereotype threat and racial differences in citizens’ experiences of police encounters. Law and Human Behavior, 39, 463–477.

9. Najdowski, Bottoms, & Goff, 2015.

14. Spencer, Charbonneau, & Glaser, “Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass”.