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In Study, People in Police Uniforms More Likely to Shoot Unarmed Targets

Putting on a uniform impacts some people's mindset and behavior in problematic ways.
Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony in June of 2017.

Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony in June of 2017.

When police officers shoot unarmed civilians, public opinion tends to divide along ideological and, often, racial lines. While many are quick to condemn the officers involved, others challenge critics with a pointed question: Under those circumstances, might you have made the same choice?

New research suggests the answer depends, in part, on how you are dressed.

A recent study, published in the journal Psychological Reports, finds people who were wearing a police uniform were more likely to shoot unarmed targets, regardless of their race. This seems to be a vivid and highly problematic example of "enclothed cognition"—the notion that wearing certain articles of clothing can alter our perception to better align with their symbolic meaning.

Importantly, wearing a police outfit only had this potentially disastrous effect on participants who tended to justify police use of lethal power. It appears the combination of that mindset and an official-looking uniform can skew one's judgment in a dangerous direction.

The study featured 178 college undergraduates, 81 percent of whom were white. As part of a series of tests administered earlier in the semester, all indicated their belief about the extent to which police officers do or do not abuse their power.

Participants took part in a video game in which they viewed a series of images such as parks and offices, followed by an image of a black or white man who was holding either a gun or some benign object. They were instructed "to shoot armed targets, and not shoot unarmed targets, as quickly as possible by pressing one of two computer keys."

Half of the participants wore their regular clothing, while the others were instructed to wear a police uniform, including a badge, over their clothes. "To avoid having the police  uniforms feel like themed costumes, we purchased several sizes of black long-sleeve tops and pants from a company that provides professional gear to law enforcement agencies," the researchers write.

"We found that participants wearing a police uniform possessed a lower threshold for shooting, resulting in more unarmed targets being wrongly shot," report the study's authors, psychologists Saaid Mendoza of Providence College and Elizabeth Parks-Stamm of the University of Southern Maine.

But the authority-symbolizing clothing did not affect everyone equally. "Those who were wary of police abusing their power tended not to show an increase in shooting unarmed targets as a result of wearing a police uniform," they write, "whereas those who were supportive of police power were more likely to shoot unarmed civilians while wearing the uniform."

"One practical implication of this research is that distrust of police power may actually be beneficial for shooting decision accuracy," the researchers add. The results suggest "only those who have positive attitudes about police power feel empowered and emboldened to action by embodying this role."

This suggests police officers would benefit from specialized training, in which they learn about incidents where excessive force was used by their colleagues—and the way wearing a uniform can impact one's behavior. As the researchers note, "awareness of the potential abuse of police power can potentially eliminate the increases in shooting unarmed civilians otherwise associated with this uniform."