Police Shootings: How A Culture Of Racism Can Infect Us All In a shooting involving a police officer, there's often a familiar blame game: Was the cop was racist? Was the person shot threatening? Or maybe, the bias that leads cops to shoot affects us all.

Police Shootings: How A Culture Of Racism Can Infect Us All

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More than 400 people have been shot and killed by police so far this year. That's according to data gathered by the Washington Post. When a person who was shot is African-American, as was the case in about a quarter of those deaths, we often hear the same questions. Did racism play a role? Was the suspect a threat?

NPR's Shankar Vedantam looks at new research suggesting that, in some cases, a police shooting may say more about a community than it does about the individuals involved. A warning, this story includes audio following a shooting that some may find upsetting.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: On a September evening in 2016, Terence Crutcher's SUV stopped in the middle of a road in Tulsa, Okla. A woman saw him step out of the car. She called 911. Officer Betty Shelby responded. Crutcher was 40, African-American. Shelby was 42 and white.

Soon, multiple police officers had gathered and drawn their guns and Tasers. Overhead, a police chopper filmed events. From the video, it's hard to tell what's happening, but an officer in the helicopter thinks Crutcher isn't cooperating.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Time for a Taser, I think. That looks like a bad dude, too. Could be on something.

VEDANTAM: Moments later, one officer on the ground does fire a Taser. Betty Shelby fires her gun.




UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #4: We have a 3-21. We have shots fired. We have one suspect down. We need EMSA here.

VEDANTAM: She kills Terence Crutcher. Later, police discover that he was unarmed. Soon, accusations are flying. Maybe the victim was high on drugs, others said maybe the police officer was racist. At a press conference after the shooting, a journalist asked Scott Wood, Betty Shelby's attorney, about that.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Did him being a big, black man play a role in her perceived danger?

SCOTT WOOD: No, him being a large man perceived a role in her being in danger. She's worked in this part of town for quite some time. And, you know, just the week before, she was at an all-black high school homecoming football game. She's not afraid of black people.

VEDANTAM: Terence Crutcher's sister, Tiffany, sees it very differently. She thinks her brother was shot because he was black.


TIFFANY CRUTCHER: That big, bad dude was my twin brother. That big, bad dude was a father. That big, bad dude was the son. That big, bad dude was enrolled at Tulsa Community College, just wanting to make us proud.

VEDANTAM: Betty Shelby was recently acquitted of manslaughter charges. Still, the tenor of the back-and-forth after the shooting is very revealing. With an incident like this, we want to know the story of what happened. What was going on in the mind of the shooter and the mind of the victim? But what if there's another way to think about what happened?

ERIC HEHMAN: Hello. My name is Eric Hehman. I'm an assistant professor of psychology at Ryerson University.

VEDANTAM: Hehman studies the use of lethal force in policing. He wanted to design a model that could predict where people of color were disproportionately likely to be shot and killed by police. He first turned to data that news outlets began compiling on police homicides several years ago. According to official terminology, these are called justifiable homicides.

HEHMAN: So what they were putting together was the most comprehensive list of these justifiable homicides in the United States.

VEDANTAM: Hehman used this data to pinpoint where disproportionate shootings of minorities were most likely. Then he turned to a different sort of data gathered by Harvard University psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji. Years ago, Banaji and her colleagues developed a simple test to better understand people's hidden biases. It's called the Implicit Association Test or the IAT. It's based on the way we group things in our mind.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: When you say bread, my mind will easily think butter but not something unrelated to it.

VEDANTAM: Our brain, it turns out, makes associations, and these associations can reveal important things about the way we think, including how we think about other people. Banaji used this insight to create a sorting task.

BANAJI: Sort for me faces of black people and bad things together, words like devil and bomb and awful and failure. Sort those on one side of the playing deck.

VEDANTAM: And on the other side, put the faces of white people...

BANAJI: ...And words like love and peace and joy and sunshine and friendly and so on to the other side. This turns out to be pretty easy for us to do because, as my colleagues and I will argue, the association of white and good and black and bad has been made for us in our culture.

VEDANTAM: The test doesn't end there. After sorting white and good into one group and black and bad into another, you now have to do it again the other way. Group black with good and white with bad.

BANAJI: And when you try to do that and when I tried to do that, the data show that we will slow down, that we can't do it quite as fast because black and good are not practiced responses for us.

VEDANTAM: Banaji thinks the IAT is measuring a form of bias that is implicit or unconscious. This was the test that Eric Hehman turned to. He suspected that if bias was a factor in police shootings, implicit bias, rather than overt racism, was probably at play.

HEHMAN: Traditionally, the field has found that explicit biases predict behaviors that are under our conscious control, whereas implicit bias predict things are a little bit more automatic, a little bit more difficult to control. And this is exactly the sort of behavior that we thought might be involved in police shootings.

VEDANTAM: People take the IAT anonymously but they do provide their race and where they live. With this data, Hehman painted a map of bias across the United States. He then overlaid this map with his map of police shootings.

HEHMAN: We find that in communities in which people have more racial biases, African-Americans are being killed more by police than their presence in the population would warrant.

VEDANTAM: Hehman thinks the test has tapped into the mind of the community as a whole.

HEHMAN: There's this idea that this attitude is pervasive across the entire area and that when officers are operating in that area, they themselves might share that same attitude that might influence their behaviors in these split-second, challenging, life-and-death decisions.

VEDANTAM: Banaji and others say that while implicit bias does act on individuals, its strongest effects may be at the level of the whole community. Individuals can do their part to limit the effects of bias on their behavior, but if you want to fix the bias itself, well, that takes the whole village. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.


MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is host of the Hidden Brain podcast.

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