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Police Killings Arise From a Racist Culture

New research finds a link between the unconscious racial bias of a region's residents and law enforcement's use of lethal force against black residents.

African Americans are more than twice as likely than whites to be killed by the police. Discussions about how to change that troubling statistic usually revolve around better recruitment and training of law-enforcement officers.

While such programs are surely valuable, new research suggests the fundamental problem lies beyond such fixes: It indicates that, if there is a culture of racism within a police department, it likely reflects the shared prejudices of the community it serves.

A research team led by Ryerson University psychologist Eric Hehman has discovered a link between the unconscious racial biases of white residents and the disproportionate use of lethal force against blacks by the police. Areas with greater levels of prejudice had higher rates of such tragic incidents.

"The context in which police officers work is significantly associated with disproportionate use of lethal force," the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The attitudes of the communities the police officers work in have a profound influence on their attitudes, behavior, and instinctive reactions.

Hehman and his colleagues utilized data from Project Implicit, a Harvard University-based website that invites people to take tests designed to measure their unconscious biases—racial and otherwise. More than four million people have done so since 2003.

The researchers focused on the results of tests taken by 1.8 million black and white Americans. Their location was broken down by "core-based statistical area," which is defined as a region "of at least 10,000 people and adjacent areas."

Implicit racial prejudice was measured by asking people to report their attitudes toward both blacks and whites on a "feeling thermometer" (from zero, "very cold," to 10, "very warm"). Ratings on the black thermometer were subtracted from those on the white one to determine implicit prejudice.

A subset of nearly 300,000 people also took the Weapons Stereotype Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength with which weapons are stereotypically associated with blacks relative to whites. This was used as a second measure of unconscious bias.

The rate of police killings was determined by a database in the Guardian newspaper. During the nine months studied (from January 1st to September 30th, 2015), the database recorded 875 such incidents. The researchers note that "black people represented 22.76 percent of all deaths, but constituted only 11.76 percent" of the population in the regions where they took place.

Finally, the researchers factored in a series of variables that could contribute to violence, including the area's socioeconomic conditions, residential segregation, and the average education level of the population.

The results: "We find that the implicit racial biases of white residents predict disproportionate regional use of lethal force (against) blacks by police," the researchers write. "This association is robust, reliably emerging across two conceptually distinct measures of racial bias."

Several caveats are needed here. The people who took the Implicit Association Test did so voluntarily, and were therefore not necessarily representative of their city or county. Also, these results are correlational and do not prove that underlying bias directly caused the higher number of deaths.

Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that the attitudes of the communities the police officers work in—which are usually the same ones they live in, and often the ones they grew up in—would have a profound influence on their attitudes, behavior, and instinctive reactions.

Perhaps these killings are less of a policing problem, and more of a community problem.