Academics and Research

DU student contributes to article about racial bias among police

Racial bias is an issue that impacts police departments across the nation. However, until recently, there has been little research on how racial bias may affect officers’ decisions on whether or not to shoot suspects who appear to be armed.

According to research published in the June 2007 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “police officers’ decisions about whether to shoot at suspects are less susceptible to racial bias than are the decisions of community members.”

The article, “Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot,” was authored by Joshua Correll from the University of Chicago, and co-authored by Bernd Wittenbrink from the University of Chicago; Bernadette Park, Charles Judd, and Melody Sadler from the University of Colorado at Boulder; and Denver Police District 3 Commander Tracie Keesee, a PhD student in DU’s human communications program.

Participants in three studies, which totaled 230 civilians, 155 Denver police officers and 113 national police officers, played video games that presented them with different combinations of white and black males who were armed, or unarmed, holding items such as a knife, a gun, a soda can or cell phone.

The game helped researchers conclude that “on average, officers were simply quicker to make correct shoot/don’t-shoot decisions than were civilians,” and that the officers “were better able to differentiate armed targets from unarmed targets.”

Keesee, who found out about the study while working on coursework at DU, was instrumental in getting the Denver Police Department to participate in the survey.

“I had the ability to communicate the purpose to the officers and the community. I could play both sides,” explains the 19-year veteran officer. “I understand the academic and the practical work and bridge the gap between them.”

Keesee adds that Denver Police Chief Gerald Whitman took a risk by participating in this study, as there was no way to guarantee favorable results.

Researchers concluded that officers’ training affects their decision to shoot, and now researchers can dig deeper to understand specifically “what it is that is having that effect,” says Keesee.

Roy Woods, Keesee’s adviser and director of DU’s Center for Civic Ethics, is utilizing the outcomes of the research by focusing on how to communicate these issues with the community.

Questions now being addressed relate to recruitment, training and retention in law enforcement.

“As a student involved in research,” Keesee says, “questions are never fully answered.”

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