Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game

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

So if it's a snake, you jump — but if it's a bunny?

"Your brain says it's fine," she says. But since the brain is pretty sensitive when it comes to false-positives, it's better to jump even though it's a stick than not to jump. "And there's a lot of biologically relevant stimuli that would trigger reactions from snakes, spiders, certain kinds of movement," she adds.

But while some of our responses are encoded by nature, other threat-detection stereotypes are social constructs that we've learned. "Through years and years of TV shows, for example, that have given your brain unconscious signals that one group is like this and another group is like that," Ito points out. "Well, then, maybe when you're walking down the street, you just unconsciously orient to those kinds of folks more."

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.

In threatening environments, the brain is constantly on the lookout for danger. This same response is activated by the shoot/don't-shoot scenarios, where a brain might react faster to a black man as a threat (i.e., holding a gun) than a white man, resulting in the skewed results. But the brain also has a "conflict-monitoring" stage of decision-making where it tries to resolve two seemingly incongruent images (black guy without a gun) in order to make the correct choice.

Ito hasn't had a chance to do brain scans of the police officers who've done the simulations, but she says she suspects the results would show that through training, the officers have better developed the process of separating an actual threat from their initial bias. "The subtle influences that we have growing up are so powerful. We're talking about decades of influence," she explains. "And in the case of race, everything around us is giving us messages about the way different racial groups are, whether we realize it or not."

She points to the tiny voltage measurements that show where the participants' brains seemed to be separating black targets from white targets.

Is this what a stereotype looks like?


The trainers are in red shirts, standing behind four twenty-something police recruits in bulletproof vests.

"Shoot 'em six times, real quick," says one trainer. "Ready! Go!"

The recruits snatch the guns from their holsters and fire a quick volley of bullets into the paper targets about ten feet away. The blasts reverberate through the bunker-like firing range near Invesco Field that the DPD uses for training exercises.

"Again. Go!"

Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

"Excellent. Okay, let's do it one-handed now. Go!"

Sergeant Marek "Ribs" Rybkowski stands behind the recruits, carefully watching to see whose hand dips and who has the best trigger control. He's going to show me the correct way to fire a gun using the department's shooting simulator, which is much more technologically advanced than the CUSP lab's simulator.

"Being police officers, we're responsible for every round that leaves the muzzle of the gun," Rybkowski explains. "We have to make sure that if we make the decision to shoot, obviously the ramifications to the public and to ourselves is serious."

While the paper targets have the familiar silhouette of a human, they also include the image of a gun. "Everything we shoot at has to have a threat on it," Rybkowski says. "So all of our shoot targets have a gun or some other type of weapon. We don't shoot at anything that isn't armed." The DPD started using this target in 1998.

That was the same year the department bought its first training simulator, the Range 2000. The string of events leading to its purchase stretched back to the 1985 shooting death of Leonard Zuchel. One evening that August, the manager of a McDonald's near downtown called police after the 26-year-old Zuchel created a disturbance. Officer Frederick Spinharney and another partner responded to the scene and found Zuchel on the street, arguing with two teenagers. As the officers approached, Zuchel spun around and Spinharney shot him, mistaking a pair of nail clippers the young man was holding for a knife. Zuchel's parents filed a lawsuit charging that police training was inadequate and that the city lacked "live" drills that would provide practice on when to shoot or not to shoot. A court agreed that "a direct connection existed between the inadequacy and the shooting," and in 1993 the family was awarded $330,000. That case led to cities around the country adopting greater requirements in decisional shooting training.

The same year as that verdict, Spinharney shot and injured another man during a domestic-disturbance call. In 1996, after Spinharney fired into a car during a traffic stop, then-chief David Michaud kicked him off the force. Two years later, Officer Robert Schneider, an expert in firearms training, testified at a civil-service hearing on Spinharney's dismissal. He criticized the city's decisional training efforts since Zuchel's death and said that Spinharney had received no additional training of any kind after his three shooting incidents. (Schneider went on to file his own lawsuit against the city, claiming that he had been transferred as a trainer in the SWAT division as retaliation for his damning testimony. A jury awarded him $75,000 in damages.)

While Rybkowski acknowledges that high-profile shooting incidents prompted some of the alterations in DPD firearms training, he says the changes are more a reflection of the general evolution of police-training techniques nationwide. These days, the city is using an upgraded video simulator called the MILO Range. While the DPD has two other video simulators in buses that rotate between districts so that officers can complete their required regular training, the MILO is a live-fire simulator, with a twenty-by-twenty-foot screen and speakers. A video is projected onto the screen; behind it are infrared lights that show where bullets pass through the paper.

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