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Cops Use Less Force on Suspects Who Look Really, Really White

A new study of arrest records finds a different sort of racial bias.
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(Photo: David Calvert/Getty Images)

(Photo: David Calvert/Getty Images)

Here's a question for white readers: How white, exactly, do you look? Do your skin tone and facial features comport comfortably with the cultural stereotype of a Caucasian, or—perhaps in poor lighting—might you be mistaken for some other ethnicity?

The answer may predict how roughly you get treated by the police.

Newly published research identifies a previously unnoticed manifestation of the racial bias that taints much contemporary law enforcement. An analysis of cases from a big-city police department finds officers, on average, used less force on white suspects whose looks were unambiguously white.

"Racial disparities in policing represent more than a simple anti-black, or anti-nonwhite, attitude," writes a research team led by Portland State University psychologist Kimberly Kahn. "Protecting whiteness may be as, or potentially more, important than derogating nonwhite out-groups."

The more stereotypically white a suspect was perceived to be, "the less police force was used during the interaction."

The study, published the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, features a random sample of 164 "use-of-force cases" from a large police department on the West Coast. The incidents took place in 2009 and 2010; 45 percent of the suspects involved were white.

"All cases in the sample involved at least one officer employing force, of various intensity, to a suspect," the researchers note. The amount of force used was estimated on a one-to-eight scale (with eight being "deadly"); that score was included in each case file, along with a photograph of the alleged perpetrator.

Those head shots were posted online (specifically, on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website), where participants were paid a small amount to rate one image. They were asked to identify the person's race or ethnicity, and then received the key instruction: "Please rate the following photographs on how stereotypical of their racial group they physically appear (on a scale of one to seven). You may use things like skin color, hair color, and other physical features to make your judgment."

Each photo was judged by eight to 20 people, whose ratings were averaged to create a composite score.

The key result: The more stereotypically white a suspect was perceived to be, "the less police force was used during the interaction."

This "decrease in severity of police use of force" was only found for whites; there was no corresponding reduction in force for suspects who looked stereotypically black, Hispanic, or Asian.

While Kahn and her colleagues concede that this study shows correlation rather than causality, they note that its findings are consistent with 2004 research that found whites received, on average, longer prison sentences if they had Afrocentric features.

They conclude that training for police officers should focus not just on combatting bias against non-whites, but also favoritism for whites.

"In response to community calls that 'black lives matter,'" they write, "society should at least consider how white lives also disproportionately benefit."


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.