Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

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

Ford said that he mistook a soda can in Lobato's hand for a gun. Although tests didn't find Lobato's fingerprints or saliva on the can, both the Denver District Attorney's Office and a grand jury declined to press charges against Ford. Denver Manager of Safety Al LaCabe concluded that Ford was not justified in the shooting and suspended him for ninety days (later cut to fifty). "I believe there is a reasonable possibility that officer Ford may have simply been startled by Frank Lobato's movements," LaCabe wrote in his 22-page decision letter, "or interpreted those movements as a deadly ambush and momentarily reacted while his finger was on the trigger of the weapon, causing him to unintentionally squeeze the trigger while simultaneously ducking."

That answer didn't satisfy Lobato's family. Attorney Kenneth Padilla filed a $10 million civil-rights lawsuit against the city for "failing to properly hire, train and supervise" the officers who'd responded to the scene; a city attorney fought to get the lawsuit dismissed. This past January, a federal judge ruled that a jury be allowed to hear Padilla's argument that the DPD's failure to train its officers on decisional shooting and use-of-force policy had resulted in Lobato's death. Rather than take its chances at an ugly public trial, the city decided to settle with the Lobato family for $900,000.

"The city paid over a million dollars to defend that case," says Padilla. "They could've settled with this family early on and saved the city a million dollars in taxpayers' money. I think that's obscene."

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.

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

Padilla also represents Vicky Trujillo, the wife of Jason Gomez.


Tiffany Ito, a social neuroscientist with the CUSP lab, used the shooting simulator to map out the brain activity of citizen volunteers, attaching electrodes to their heads to measure electrical impulses. On her computer screen, she now pulls up a series of charts that detail which parts of the brain were working, and how powerfully they were working, during the milliseconds it took for a shooter image to appear and the participant to decide what to do.

In early studies, Park explains, the scientists would talk about whether only white participants would show cultural bias. "Because then it would have a meaning, right?" she says. "If it was something that whites show and blacks don't, then it is a prejudice of dislike toward black." But that's not what more recent data indicated. "It has less to do with 'I don't like this group' and more to do with 'I associate this group with danger,'" Park notes. "It's certainly part of the culture, given that you see it within African-Americans, and given that they are picking up on more general cultural associations with blacks and danger."

Tom Aveni, a police officer and shooting trainer for thirty years who's studied so-called questionable shootings since 1995, calls the CUSP study "absolute garbage."

"You've got a computer game where they splice a brief exposure of a still photo," he says. "So there's really no realistic situational context. We don't have a crime being committed, we don't have actions."

Aveni, who's with the New Hampshire-based Police Policy Studies Council, has done research of his own using a more elaborate shooting simulator, which he says shows that the behavior of the suspect, rather than the suspect's race, has the biggest influence on an officer's decision to shoot. Aveni presented more than 300 officers with dozens of scenarios involving everything from robberies to muggings to burglaries; the suspects the officers encountered varied in age, race, gender and manner of dress. In half of the situations, the suspects were holding flashlights or cell phones. Aveni found that officers were more likely to shoot if the suspects were young rather than old, and wearing "punk clothes" rather than dressed up. But the most important factor was whether the subject acted in a way the officer found intimidating.

"If an officer responds to an armed robbery and gives a verbal command — 'Show me your hands! Don't move!' — and the person turns abruptly, especially in a partial crouch or a full crouch, he's gonna get shot whether he's armed or not," says Aveni. "Because the expectation is, this guy is fleeing the scene of a robbery, he's not obeying verbal commands, and now he's turning toward me in a threatening manner. That is what drives a decision to shoot. Irresponsible behavior in a felonious context will get somebody shot."

CUSP researchers have been careful to point out that their simplified task is in no way meant to simulate what officers experience in real-life situations. "But I do think that factors in the environment affect cognition and how people process information, including how easy it is for a person to process if another person is holding a gun or not," Park notes.

At its most basic level, Ito says, a stereotype is a natural human function that allows the brain to detect various threats. "We have primitive, quick-acting threat-detection systems — we call them visualence systems — that would be sensitive to a wide range of stimuli," she explains. "If you're walking through the forest and you feel something move next to you, it could be a snake, it could be a little critter trying to bite you. You'll orient to that, try to quickly figure out what it is."

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