Understanding Police

By Kelsey Rettke

On Tuesday, Dec. 6 in the Center for the Sciences, Jessica Sims, a researcher in the University of Chicago department of psychology, gave a lecture titled “Understanding Police and Expert Performance: The Effect of Training on Stereotypic Basis in the Decision to Shoot.”

The lecture discussed four main issues: the problem of prejudice, the role of stereotypes and “the police officer’s predicament,” typical findings from the paradigm, increasing stereotype accessibility, and boundary conditions of training.

Sims explained how historical perceptions can sometimes enforce prejudice or discrimination, and how modern forms of bias are less subtle, or even in some cases can be unconscious, or not recognized as a prejudice.

Sims then discussed “the police officer’s predicament.” There are a series of factors that enforced the idea that the pattern of racial bias may reflect the accessibility of stereotypes that link a certain racial group to violence. These factors include ambiguous situations, time pressure and secondary cues such as race, gender and neighborhood settings.

Sims then described an experiment she did which consisted of a series of first-person-shooter-like scenarios where a white or African-American figure was shown holding either a gun or a harmless object. The participant was then given a set of two buttons “Shoot” or “Don’t Shoot” and graded on 3 factors:  their reaction time, choice and accuracy.

This experiment was performed with a number of groups: Denver Police Officers, a compilation of police officers on a national level and presumably un-trained community members. The results showed a level of consistency in the police officer tests where their ability to shoot faster showed no evidence of racial bias, but rather their formal training with a weapon.  Community members showed a faster reaction time and a slight racial bias for armed figures.

There are many “real-life implications” to this scenario that cannot be taken into account with the experiment, such as special-crimes unit police officers, who work in hostile situations daily, regular patrol officers and gang units who perhaps deal with a certain group frequently.



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