Why police so often see unarmed black men as threats

Most of the racial prejudice Americans harbor today is subtle and manifests itself in stealthier ways than it did in the past. It shows up in how employers view potential hires, how salespeople choose to assist people at high-end stores, or how teachers dole out punishments to misbehaving students. Often subconscious, these race-based evaluations of character or intelligence have wide-ranging effects.

Extensive research on the subject shows that just about everyone carries this subconscious prejudice, known as implicit bias, no matter how well-meaning they might be. In the criminal justice system, this implicit bias may contribute to the many racial disparities in law enforcement. When it comes to police officers, implicit bias is a widespread concern, precisely because of how devastating its effects can be, with trade publications and federal programs taking steps to address it through training and awareness.

There are law enforcement officials who understand how devastating the effects of implicit bias can be, but no one understands this more than the people living in communities where racial minorities are disproportionately targeted by police and arrested. The reaction to police killings since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, then, is about more than a specific individual incident; it’s also about the overall system that makes such deaths at the hands of police disproportionately common.

But it’s not just police shootings. When looking at the criminal justice system as a whole, there are many, many racial disparities — in incarceration rates, length of prison sentences for the exact same crimes, and even the death penalty.

Some of the disparities are explained by socioeconomic factors — such as poverty, unemployment, and segregation — that make black Americans much more likely to commit crime than their white counterparts. But a review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that throughout various time periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons. This means that other factors were behind as much as 39 percent of the disparate rates of imprisonment for black people — and one of those factors may be implicit bias.
Cops stereotype black men without being aware of it

Lorie Fridell is a University of South Florida criminologist who works with cops to help them resist subconscious biases, particularly against young black men.

“Similarly to explicit bias, [implicit bias] groups people into stereotypes and prejudices,” Fridell said. “What’s different is it doesn’t come with outward hostility.”

In police work, this bias can show itself when an officer stops a subject he views as a potential threat. Police officers are legally allowed to use force based on their perception of a threat, so long as their perception is defined as reasonable (usually as judged by a prosecutor, judge, jury, or grand jury). That doesn’t, however, mean they always use force. “Police very often use a lesser level of force even when they’re justified at a higher level,” Fridell said.

But if some cops automatically consider black men more dangerous, they probably won’t show nearly as much restraint against a black suspect as they would against, say, an elderly white woman. So police officers might be more likely to use deadly force against black people that’s legally justified but perhaps not totally necessary.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and California State University Northridge in May reviewed a decade of empirical evidence about cops and implicit bias. They found police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones. But this bias may be partly controlled through proper training, and police officers appear to perform better — meaning they show less implicit bias — than participants from the general public.

To test these disparities, researchers have run all sorts of simulations with police officers and other participants. In the earlier days, these simulations would quickly flash images of black and white people, along with different objects, and ask participants to identify if the object was a gun. More recently, researchers have used video games to see how people react to suspects of different races.

Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor, ran some of these tests with a shooter video game. His initial findings showed police officers generally did a good job of avoiding shooting unarmed targets of all races, but when shooting was warranted, officers pulled the trigger more quickly against black suspects than white ones. This suggests that officers exhibit some racial bias in shooting.

In the real world, this could lead police to shoot black people at disproportionate rates. Real policing situations, after all, are often much more complicated: Factors — such as a real threat to the officer’s life and whether a bullet will miss and accidentally hit a passerby — can make the situation much more confusing to officers. So if cops, as Correll’s simulations suggest, tend to shoot black suspects more quickly, it’s possible that could lead to more errors — such as shooting a black suspect when it’s not necessary — in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

Other research found that the public and police are less likely to view black people as innocent. As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious “dehumanization bias” against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Better police training can help overcome implicit bias

Perhaps the most optimistic part of all this grim research is that over time, evidence of implicit biases can be reduced through practice and experience. The longer officers and other participants took part in the simulations, the less likely they were to make errors. Some of Correll’s research also found that certain types of training can diminish racial bias.

Fridell, of the University of South Florida, capitalizes on this research to help police departments around the country train their officers all along the chain of command. The training relies mainly on the types of shooting simulations used by Correll and other researchers to test cops, but the training sessions are redeveloped to purposely disprove stereotypes against race, gender, age, and other factors. As a result, the training sessions help officers learn to focus more on other cues — body language, what someone is holding — instead of race. (This training isn’t generally required by law, but it’s becoming more common as concerns grow about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.)
A British police officer poses with a revolver.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Fridell said that this training needs to look beyond race. “In the same way we as humans have stereotypes linking blacks to crime and aggressiveness, we also have stereotypes of lack of crime and aggressiveness,” she said, pointing to women and the elderly as two examples. “For a police officer, this might lead him to be under-vigilant against certain groups.”

Neill Franklin, a retired major who served for 34 years in the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, said the need for this kind of training is something he witnessed in his everyday work. As the commander in training units in both the state and local police forces, he often pushed for officers to consider their bias before taking any official action as a cop.

“[W]e all have this subconscious bias. Even me, as a black police officer, I felt the same,” Franklin said. “When I would be in certain parts of the city and see young black males, it would run through my mind, ‘What are they up to? Are they dealing?’ That’s because of what we’ve been bombarded with for so many years from so many different directions, including the media.”

Beyond the simulations and training, Fridell said community policing, which focuses on building ties between local police departments and their communities, can help break down stereotypes. This is what’s called the contact theory: Positive interactions with stereotyped groups can reduce explicit and implicit biases. A cop who interacts with black residents in his town might realize that many of his previous prejudices, implicit or not, weren’t warranted.

Community policing can work in two directions, as well. Just as police’s perceptions toward the community change, so do community perceptions toward police. This could, Fridell explained, make communities less defensive — and therefore less aggressive — during police interactions.

Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs, worries the training might not be enough in the face of perverse incentives in the criminal justice system. Local police departments are under constant pressure to obtain federal grants, which can be tied in part to, for instance, how many arrests they carry out. As was the case in Ferguson, the tickets issued by police officers can also make up a huge source of money for local governments, which encourages police to issue as many tickets as possible — potentially in the black communities they’re more likely to be deployed in — to bring in more revenue.

Given those incentives, Franklin said, police are encouraged to go after “low-hanging fruit” often found in minority communities that lack political and financial power, magnifying the effects of implicit bias. It’s these types of systemic issues that are at the root of the problem — and might perpetuate systemic racial disparities even if officers are properly trained in how to deal with implicit bias.


President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama Nail the Tango in Argentina

The Obamas slay, OK? U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama attended an official state dinner for Argentine President Mauricio Macri on Wednesday, March 23, and the first couple nailed the country’s national dance, the tango.

During the event held at the Kirchner Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires, guests were treated to a tango showcase. Making the performance all the more special? The fact that POTUS and his wife were invited to participate.

Michelle, who looked elegant in a satin tea-length dress, and a sharp suit-clad Barack lit up the dance floor with impressive footwork and plenty of Latin flavor.

This isn’t the first time the political pair have proved they know how to get their groove on. During his first presidential campaign, Barack made an October 2007 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show where he joined the talk-show host in an impromptu boogie to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.”

“You’ve got some moves!” DeGeneres, 58, told the politician at the time.

Eight years later in May 2015, Michelle also appeared on DeGeneres’ show where the two had a friendly dance-off to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” in support of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

Watch the Obamas kill the tango in the video below.



  • Mora Godoy danced with President Obama during his visit to Argentina 
  • Pair performed Argentine tango at a dinner hosted by country’s president 
  • Now Ms Godoy has admitted that she had been told not to dance with him 
  • She says she threw caution to the wind and decided to just ask anyway 
  • It has now been revealed Ms Godoy, appeared on the July 2006 cover of Playboy

She swept President Obama off his feet when they tangoed together during his visit to Argentina last week.

And now 43-year-old professional dancer Mora Godoy has admitted she was actually told not to dance with the American leader but did it anyway.

‘It wasn’t in the protocol. To tell you the truth, it was forbidden for me to ask him to dance,’ said Godoy, who became an instant sensation when photos emerged of her and Obama dancing and dipping after a state dinner in Buenos Aires.

Ms Godoy has now admitted that she was told not to ask the president to dance but decided to do it anyway 

Ms Godoy has now admitted that she was told not to ask the president to dance but decided to do it anyway 

‘This is why everyone was surprised, especially President Mauricio Macri, who then supported my invitation.’

What President Obama may not have known at the time is that Ms Godoy previously appeared on the July 2006 cover of Playboy, and was fully nude in an accompanying spread.

Ms Godoy had prepared an Argentine tango for the guests to enjoy at the dinner but was told she was not to invite the president on to the dance floor.

But during her performance, the dancer said she decided to throw caution to the wind and ask Obama if he would join in with her.

Although the president at first seemed hesitant, he accepted the invitation, creating a moment that went viral on social media. 

Ms Godoy has said that when she approached the president, he seemed hesitant at first and was unsure about dancing 

Ms Godoy has said that when she approached the president, he seemed hesitant at first and was unsure about dancing 

Ms Godoy has said that when she approached the president, he seemed hesitant at first and was unsure about dancing but turned out to be a good dancer 

She told the Farandula Show in Argentina: ‘These things don’t happen everyday. They can happen in your life or not.’ 

She later added; ‘President Obama was totally surprised. He said “Ok, but I don’t know how to dance. I’ll follow you”. He’s an exceptional dancer.’

It was not just President Obama who got to show off some moves either, with First Lady Michelle Obama also taking some time to tango.

She was swept off her feet by Ms Godoy’s partner, José Lugones, that evening in Buenos Aires.

‘Michelle was the star of the evening. She was very happy because she danced. She thanked me when her dance was done,’ said Ms Godoy.

Mr Godoy is one of the most renowned dancers in South America and appeared on the July 2006 cover of Playboy (above)

Mr Godoy is one of the most renowned dancers in South America and appeared on the July 2006 cover of Playboy (above)

And despite how steamy Ms Godoy’s dance with President Obama may have appeared, thanks in large part to her gold sequined dress with a large slit, she said that she actually toned down the sensuality of her moves.

However, she did not turn down the sensuality when she appeared in Playback in 2006, being featured on the cover wearing nothing but a fedora as she sat backwards on a chair.

Inside she also showed off some of her tango moves topless. 

Meanwhile, not everybody was as impressed with Obama’s tango as his dance partner. 

Republican politicians including presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz repeatedly called for the president to return home in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks last Tuesday.

President Obama instead decided to finish his trip to Cuba before heading to Argentina and then returning home.

In addition to his wife he was joined on the trip by daughters Sasha and Malia and his mother-in-law Marian Robinson.

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