Study: Police three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white ones

The conventional thinking about police-involved shootings, and some scientific research, has been that black suspects are more likely to be shot than white suspects because of an implicit racial bias among police officers. But now a new study has found exactly the opposite: even with white officers who do have racial biases, officers are three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.

The results come from a laboratory project at Washington State University using highly realistic police simulators, in which actors in various scenarios approach and respond to officers on large, high-definition video screens in an attempt to recreate critical situations on the street. The officers are equipped with real guns, modified to fire infrared beams rather than bullets, and the scenarios can branch into conflict or cooperation, depending on the officers’ words and actions.

It’s the third time researchers at Washington State — Lois James, Stephen M. James and Bryan J. Vila — have set up simulations to monitor the differing reactions of police when confronted by white or black suspects. And all three times, they found that officers took significantly more time to fire their weapons if the subject was black, according to their latest report, “The Reverse Racism Effect,” to be published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy.