Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

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

The results of their study were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last July, in a paper titled "The Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot." As in the earlier CUSP study, community members displayed a greater willingness to shoot an African-American target than a white one. But while police officers still displayed discrepancies in speed of response depending on race, they vastly outperformed civilians in accuracy — meaning that cops did not make the ultimate decision to shoot based on a target's skin color.

For Correll, who'd initially hypothesized that officers would show the same biases as civilians, the results were very surprising. "Police officers are people," he says. "They have the same basic mental processes that we do, and they should be governed by the same types of things. So in a culture that pretty regularly associates black people with danger and criminality, we might expect [police] to look just like everyone else."

Instead, this study indicated that police officers' training not only affected whether they chose to fire at a target, but made them less likely to shoot on the basis of race.

Commander Tracie Keesee took the Denver Police Department to a new level when she suggested working with CU.
tony gallagher
Commander Tracie Keesee took the Denver Police Department to a new level when she suggested working with CU.
Bernadette Park and other researchers at CUSP are using a video game to test a deadly serious issue.
tony gallagher
Bernadette Park and other researchers at CUSP are using a video game to test a deadly serious issue.

The DPD and the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance held a press conference to announce the results. The New York Times picked up the story, as did National Public Radio, but to the disappointment of both the researchers and the DPD, no local outlets covered it. After all the times the department had been hammered by the media for controversial police shootings, the one time it had new information shedding light on a complex subject, no one paid attention.

"It made you stop and think about the long-held assumption that we all have," Keesee says. "This was very important from a law-enforcement prospective. A significant step was made to answer a question that communities of color have had for a very long time."

Keesee did receive inquiries about the study from police departments in several other cities. And national law-enforcement organizations heralded the results as further evidence that cop-shooting decisions are not driven by race bias, that the widely held belief that police are "trigger-happy" for certain ethnicities doesn't stand up.

If anyone is trigger-happy for minorities, it's society at large.


I have come to the "shooter study" test site in the psychology building on CU's Boulder campus to find out if I'm a racist.

I'm welcomed by a graduate student whose job is to watch other students as they simulate shooting people of different races. The data is then compared to the performances of Denver citizens and police officers, as well as officers from around the country. This is not the only CUSP study in progress; five faculty social-psychologists and half a dozen graduate students work here, researching everything from how blacks with greater Afro-centric facial features are disproportionately represented in prison populations to how racial prejudice can be measured in brain waves.

"Go ahead and have a seat," the grad student says, gesturing toward dozens of desks, a small computer on each, lined along the walls. I'm given a consent form that says I know this is an anonymous, voluntary study. On the desk in front of the computer screen is a little box with three buttons. The green one is labeled "shoot," the red one "don't shoot." There's also a yellow button that I'm supposed to press when I want to start. I do, and instructions pop up on the screen that tell me my task is to shoot anybody holding a gun. I have less than a second to make a choice, and if I don't, I lose points. The point system goes like this:

+5 points for deciding not to shoot at an unarmed man

+10 points for shooting an armed man

-20 points for shooting an unarmed man

-40 points for being shot

There are two versions to this game — a fast one and a super-fast one. I'm on the super-fast one, which calls for quicker decisions and has a greater likelihood of revealing racial bias. I'm given a practice round, and the game flips through a series of background images showing locations in Denver: a light-rail shelter behind Union Station, a sidewalk in Civic Center Park, an alleyway near downtown, a spot on Capitol Hill. The first man who pops up is a white guy crouching with a gun. I press "shoot." As the game continues, the images come faster. I find myself accidentally shooting white men with Coke cans, black guys with cell phones. But if I wait too long on an image, I lose my chance and points. So I choose "don't shoot" prematurely a few times and get shot, losing still more points.

When I start the real game, I make correct choices on the first three images but bungle the next two. There's no gunfire; the only sound is the periodic clack of the button as I try to decide on my course of action as quickly as possible. When I shoot another black guy with a cell phone, I wonder if I've just revealed some hidden racial bias. So when I see the image of another black male, I overcompensate by hitting the red button too quickly — and end up getting shot myself.

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