Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

Are Denver cops trigger-happy for minorities? A video game might hold the answer.

So Correll and Bernadette Park, a psychologist who's been at CU since the mid-'80s, developed a video shooting game that involved black and white male targets holding either guns or innocuous objects such as cell phones or soda cans. They told study participants — found in college classrooms and along the 16th Street Mall — to shoot only when the simulated characters were armed. The data revealed that players forced to make split-second decisions were prone to shoot images of unarmed black men and on average were quicker to shoot at black men holding guns than white men who were armed.

"[Participants] set a more lenient criterion to shoot for African-Americans than for whites," says Park, adding that this tendency was seen not just among Caucasian players, but also among players identifying as black or Hispanic. In 2002, she and four colleagues published a report on their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A year later, University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald did his own study, putting college students in the role of plainclothes police officers in a computer simulation where potential targets of different races appeared from behind dumpsters as fellow officers, citizens or gun-wielding criminals. Players had greater difficulty distinguishing weapons from harmless objects when they were in the hands of blacks rather than whites, resulting in more wrongful shootings of black targets.

The studies established shooter bias as a broad cultural predisposition, but researchers had no way of knowing if police officers would test the same way. So CUSP contacted the Chicago and Los Angeles police departments, but they refused to participate in further studies. "Basically, we had a really hard time finding anyone who was willing to even say 'I'll open the doors,'" Park remembers. The academics finally teamed up with the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law-enforcement policy group, and won a grant to extend the shooter-bias tests to cops. But the police group got nervous and backed out at the last minute, Park says, effectively closing the door on the CUSP project.

At the DPD firing range, cadets are trained to see beyond the race of suspects, like Jason Gomez (right).
At the DPD firing range, cadets are trained to see beyond the race of suspects, like Jason Gomez (right).

Details

Are you a trigger-happy racist? Find out here.

Then Park got an unexpected call from Keesee.

"She said she was a graduate student and wanted to ask me some questions about the study," recalls Park. "I called her back and we chatted a little bit about it, and about ten minutes into the conversation, she said she was actually a police lieutenant."

Park mentioned the conversation to her colleagues: "And they said, 'Did you ask her if we could have access to the Denver police?' And I said, 'No, she just wanted to know about the work.' And they said, 'Call her back after the meeting!'"

Park did, and Keesee was open to discussing the idea. But as a then-thirteen-year veteran of the DPD, she knew that gaining authorization to test the city's cops for racist shooting tendencies would not be easy. For starters, the departmental bureaucracy would have to overcome its natural instinct to close ranks to outsiders, a stance that becomes particularly useful whenever race is at issue. "A lot of large organizations would not allow outside researchers to come in and look at hot-button topics such as race bias and the use of deadly force," Keesee acknowledges.

So she decided to take the idea right to the top: Chief Gerald Whitman, who agreed to let the CUSP researchers have a sit-down with department brass. Then Whitman had to weigh whether getting useful data on police-shooting decisions was worth the possible damage that negative results might have on the department's already tenuous image within the black and Hispanic communities. After all, fallout from the Mena shooting had ultimately forced the resignation of the previous chief, Tom Sanchez, in 2000. But ultimately, Whitman agreed to the DPD's participation.

"I wanted to see what we could learn from this survey," says Whitman. "It was something that would improve officer safety and citizen safety and make us better police."

"It took a lot of courage for the chief to agree to let them come in and do some research," adds Keesee.

Keesee, who is continuing her education by working toward a Ph.D. in intercultural communications at DU, is currently the commander of District 3, which covers Capitol Hill south to the Denver Tech Center. It's the district in which she was born and raised — her mother was a nurse, her father in the military — and where she started her career as a police officer in 1989. At the time, she was a single parent with a young daughter. She'd considered becoming a lawyer, but opted for law enforcement instead. "It was between joining the Denver Police Department and joining the Houston Police Department," she says. "This being my home, I decided to stay here."

But Keesee's district includes neighborhoods with some of the lowest minority populations in the city. So when it came time to find officers to volunteer for the study, Park and Keesee spread their recruitment efforts across four police districts, eventually getting shooter data from 124 local officers. To compare the cops with community members, they staked out Division of Motor Vehicle offices in the same districts and asked citizens to do the shooter simulation. For a national sample of cops, Park and other researchers traveled to officer-training seminars across the country.

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