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Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

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

After about two minutes, the game is over. While I'm not confident of my accuracy score, I think I'm pretty safe from scoring as a racist, since I probably shot as many unarmed white males as blacks. The truth of the simulation, however, is not necessarily measured by the overall score, but in milliseconds. How long did it take me to decide if I viewed a person as a threat — and with which race was I most often correct?

The results of my test are determined by this formula: f(1,361)+239.37,p<.001. It showed that I was 3 percent more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black than an unarmed white; it took me a third longer to decide that a black, unarmed man was not a threat. And this was a computer game.</p>

In the field, cops are dealing with chaotic and hazardous situations, when mere milliseconds separate the momentary flash of a potential weapon and when they have to decide whether to pull the trigger. How can training — even the best training — overcome the entrenched factors of cultural bias?


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.

Though Denver was spared the brutal race riots that shook cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York in the '60s and '70s, race relations here have an uneasy history, stretching from Denver's earliest days through its stint in the 1920s as a KKK stronghold. "Another Black Man Killed," a pamphlet distributed around the city in 1961, denounced the shooting of Eugene "Skijump" Cook by two officers. "How long are these white men going to be allowed to walk our streets and kill us off and walk again?" its anonymous author raged.

Minority Views of the Police, a book based on numerous interviews with Denver residents and police officers, published by the University of Denver in 1969, concluded that the most important factor influencing residents' view of the police was ethnicity: "Negros and Spanish-named persons share among themselves views of the police that are less favorable than those of the rest of the community and which are not materially affected by the success they achieve in life in terms of social and economic position." At the time, the percentage of black and Latino officers in the Denver Police Department was about 5 percent. At the end of 2006, approximately 32 percent of Denver officers were minority — below the city's non-white population of about 50 percent, but a close match with the ethnic makeup of the metro-area recruiting pool.

But those changing realities, as well as studies like CUSP's, don't deter the DPD's critics. African-American activist Shareef Aleem, who's read the "Thin Blue Line" report, says it has little to do with real-life scenarios. "I don't deal with video games when I'm out on the street. I'm dealing with real cops with attitudes," he notes. "With the Denver and Aurora police departments, if you're black or Latino, the police are more aggressive towards you, insofar as shooting you or beating you down." The only reason the DPD would feel compelled to participate in such a study, he adds, is because it has such a checkered past with racially biased shootings: "I'm looking at what's the motivation of the study and what's the political message they're trying to get out. If they're trying to show that this is some kind of magic pill, that they don't discriminate, that's bullshit. If you've got to do all this to prove you're not racist, you're definitely racist."

But Joseph Sandoval, a professor of criminal justice at Metro State College, thinks the study suggests that the DPD is becoming more open to changing a culture that once permitted and even encouraged the use of deadly force. "In the '60s and '70s, if an [officer] didn't pull out a gun and shoot immediately, they were branded as cowards," says Sandoval, who helped create the Public Safety Review Commission and the Citizens' Oversight Board.

But while Sandoval thinks the department has come a long way regarding the shooting of civilians, particularly minority civilians, he doubts that racial bias can ever be eliminated completely. "Police officers are a product of the communities within which they live and those biases are there very clearly in our society," he notes. "Maybe it will never be eliminated. However, that kind of racial bias can be pushed to the background in situations involving shootings."

In 2006 and 2007, there were nineteen officer-involved shootings. Of the individuals shot, eleven were Hispanic, five were black, two were white and one was Asian.

Since 1996, forty people have been killed by Denver police, out of a total of 86 deadly-force incidents when an officer shot someone. The vast majority of those killed were armed with guns and knives, but other instances involved just a stick, a fake gun, a cell phone or a soda can.  

In July 2004, Officer Ranjan Ford and two other cops used a ladder to climb through the second-story window of an apartment in the South Lincoln Park housing projects. They were searching for Vincent Martinez, who was suspected of assaulting his girlfriend after an argument in a bar, then refusing to let her leave her home for seventeen hours. When they crawled into the dark house, they didn't know that Martinez had already fled out the back and that his uncle, 63-year-old Frank Lobato, was lying naked in bed, unable to walk without crutches.

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