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Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision
to Shoot
Joshua Correll
Bernadette Park and Charles M. Judd
University of Chicago
University of Colorado at Boulder
Bernd Wittenbrink
Melody S. Sadler
University of Chicago
University of Colorado at Boulder
Tracie Keesee
University of Denver
Police officers were compared with community members in terms of the speed and accuracy with which
they made simulated decisions to shoot (or not shoot) Black and White targets. Both samples exhibited
robust racial bias in response speed. Officers outperformed community members on a number of
measures, including overall speed and accuracy. Moreover, although community respondents set the
decision criterion lower for Black targets than for White targets (indicating bias), police officers did not.
The authors suggest that training may not affect the speed with which stereotype-incongruent targets are
processed but that it does affect the ultimate decision (particularly the placement of the decision
criterion). Findings from a study in which a college sample received training support this conclusion.
Keywords: police, race, bias, weapon, training
& Wittenbrink, 2002; Greenwald, Oakes, & Hoffman, 2003;
Payne, 2001). Although social psychologists have only recently
addressed this question, the impact of suspect ethnicity on police
shootings has long been the focus of researchers in other fields of
study, particularly sociology, political science, and law enforcement. Investigators have consistently found evidence that police
use greater force, including lethal force, with minority suspects
than with White suspects (e.g., Inn, Wheeler, & Sparling, 1977;
Smith, 2004; see Geller, 1982, for a review). Data from the
Department of Justice (2001), itself, indicate that Black suspects
are approximately five times more likely than White suspects, per
capita, to die at the hands of a police officer.
One of the most detrimental consequences of police shootings is
the upheaval they can provoke. Shootings of a minority suspect
may engender a sense of mistrust and victimization among community members and give rise to conflict between the community
and police. Weitzer and Tuch (2004) present evidence that members of ethnic minorities often feel that they are mistreated by the
police, even after statistically controlling for factors like personal
and vicarious experiences with the law, exposure to the media, and
neighborhood disadvantage (see also Sunshine & Tyler, 2003).
The implication is that the police are racist and that officers use
excessive force with minority suspects. In response, Black people
may engage in more belligerent behavior, including “talking back”
to police officers, and—in a vicious cycle—this belligerence may
prompt more severe use of force by police (Reisig, McCluskey,
Inspired in part by high-profile police shootings of unarmed
Black men, a flurry of social psychological research has attempted
to assess the influence of a suspect’s race on the use of force,
specifically in terms of the decision to shoot (Correll, Park, Judd,
Joshua Correll, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago;
Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Melody S. Sadler, Department of
Psychology, University of Colorado at Boulder; Bernd Wittenbrink, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago; Tracie Keesee, University
of Denver.
Primary support for this work was provided by a grant from the Russell
Sage Foundation. Support for this work also came from National Institute
of Mental Health Grant F31-MH069017 to Joshua Correll and National
Institute of Mental Health Grant R01-45049 to Bernadette Park and
Charles M. Judd.
In the interest of disclosure, we note that Tracie Keesee also serves as
a commander in the Denver Police Department. We thank Chief Gerald
Whitman, the Denver Police Department, Calibre Press, the Denver Department of Motor Vehicles, and (especially) the many officers of the
Denver Police Department and police departments around the country for
their assistance, patience, and participation. We also thank Alinne Barrera,
Heather Coulter, and David M. Deffenbacher for their invaluable assistance with this research and Myron Rothbart for his many helpful comments.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joshua
Correll, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
60637. E-mail:
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6, 1006 –1023
Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association 0022-3514/07/$12.00
DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1006
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Mastrofski, & Terrill, 2004). It is equally important to note that, as
a consequence of this tension, officers who see their job as protecting the community may feel, and to some extent may actually
be, thwarted in their efforts to perform their duty.
Officer-involved shootings, then, can have severe consequences,
not just for the officers and suspects involved, but for the community at large as well. It is of paramount importance to understand and explain why minority suspects are disproportionately
likely to be shot. The sociological literature offers a number of
explanations. Some research suggests that bias in police shootings
stems, at least in part, from the officers’ role as protectors of the
privileged (predominantly White) classes over the less fortunate
(predominantly minority) members of society (Sorenson, Marquart, & Brock, 1993). Others argue that the racial discrepancy in
officer-involved shootings stems from differential minority involvement in criminal activity (Department of Justice, 2001; Inn et
al., 1977) or from the fact that minorities are disproportionately
likely to live and work in low-income, high-crime communities
(Terrill & Reisig, 2003).
A primary strength of the sociological approach is that it examines police use of force directly and in its true context. These
researchers study real locations and real officers, and their dependent variable is the number of suspects who are actually shot. They
thus maintain the richness and complexity of the real world when
analyzing relationships between officer-involved shootings and
variables like race or community disadvantage. At the same time,
the preexisting correlations among these variables confound efforts to assess their independent effects. For example, the relationship between the proportion of Black citizens in a community and
perceptions of disorder (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004) is inextricably tied to, and cannot be fully separated from, racial discrepancies in officer-involved shootings (Terrill & Reisig, 2003). For
this reason, a social psychological analysis of the problem with
experimental methods is useful not to replace but rather to supplement research of a more naturalistic sort.
Over the past several years, social psychological researchers
have examined the effect of race on shoot/don’t-shoot decisions
using videogame-like simulations. In one paradigm, participants
view a series of images (background scenes and people) and are
instructed to respond to armed targets with a shoot response, and
to unarmed targets with a don’t-shoot response as quickly and as
accurately as possible (Correll et al., 2002; Correll, Park, Judd, &
Wittenbrink, 2007; Correll, Urland, & Ito, 2006). The results of
some 20 studies with this task, with a variety of parameters and
manipulations, consistently show racial bias in both the speed and
accuracy with which such decisions can be made. Participants are
faster and more accurate when shooting an armed Black man
rather than an armed White man, and faster and more accurate
when responding “don’t shoot” to an unarmed White man rather
than an unarmed Black man. The bulk of this research has been
conducted with college students, but the effect has been replicated
with community samples of both White and Black participants,
and conceptually similar effects have been obtained by a number
of other labs (Amodio et al., 2004; Greenwald et al., 2003; Payne,
2001; Payne, Lambert, & Jacoby, 2002; Plant, Peruche, & Butz,
2005). These findings, along with reports from sociological and
related literatures, clearly indicate that race can play an important
role in decisions about the danger or threat posed by a particular
person. But experimental data rarely speak directly to police behavior.
In our literature review, we discovered only two papers that
examine officers in experimental studies of racial bias. Eberhardt,
Goff, Purdie, and Davies (2004) found that priming the concept of
crime served to orient attention to Black (more than White) faces.
This pattern held for officers and civilians alike. Plant and Peruche
(2005) examined training effects among officers on a task where
images of White and Black men appeared with a gun or nongun
object superimposed on the face. They found that officers showed
racial bias in their errors during the first phase of the study (i.e.,
officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot Black targets who
appeared with nongun objects, and to not shoot White targets who
appeared with a gun in the first 80 trials of the task), but that bias
fell to nonsignificant levels in the second phase (i.e., the last 80
trials of the task). These studies suggest that officers, like undergraduates, show racial biases in the processing of crime-related
But there is reason to believe that police will differ from citizens
in shoot/don’t-shoot decisions. Most notably, officers receive extensive experience with firearms during their academy training
(before they are sworn in) and throughout their careers. For example, the Denver Police Department requires that new recruits
spend 72 hr in practical weapons training, and officers must
recertify on a quarterly basis. At the firing range, officers and
recruits make shoot/don’t-shoot decisions for target silhouettes
that appear suddenly, either armed or unarmed; in Firearms Training System simulators (Firearms Training Systems, Inc., Atlanta,
GA), they respond to an interactive video simulation of a potentially hostile suspect; and in simulated searches, they confront live
actors armed with weapons that fire painful but nonlethal ammunition (e.g., paintballs, Simunition, or Air Soft pellets).
An extensive body of research shows that training improves
performance on tasks in which a peripheral cue interferes with a
participant’s response to a central or task-relevant cue. Through
training, participants learn to ignore the irrelevant information and
respond primarily on the basis of the central feature of the stimulus
(e.g., MacLeod, 1998; MacLeod & Dunbar, 1988; Plant & Peruche, 2005). For example, in a Stroop (1935) task, participants
classify the color in which a word is printed (e.g., red). Color is
thus the central cue. This task becomes more difficult if the word
(a peripheral cue) refers to a different color (e.g., the word “blue”
printed in red). Initially, participants have difficulty with this task,
responding slowly and inaccurately when the central and peripheral cues conflict. But with training, judgment improves. Responses occur more quickly and require less effort and less cognitive control. As a result, experts demonstrate reduced
interference in both latencies and errors. Neuroimaging studies
have even documented the shifting patterns of brain activity that
correspond to the development of automatic task performance
(Bush et al., 1998; Jansma, Ramsey, Slagter, & Kahn, 2001; for a
review, see Kelly & Garavan, 2004). During initial performance on
interference tasks, participants recruit brain regions related to
conflict detection and response control (e.g., the anterior cingulate
and medial prefrontal cortexes). With extensive practice, however,
activation in these regions decreases, presumably because an automatic task requires less executive supervision.
But automatization may not characterize all learning on interference tasks. In some cases, training actually promotes controlled
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
processing. For example, when participants are continuously challenged by variable task requirements or increasing demands, practice can lead to more extensive recruitment of prefrontal brain
regions (Olesen, Westerberg, & Klingberg, 2004; Weissman,
Woldorff, Hazlett, & Mangun, 2002). Of particular relevance to
shoot/don’t-shoot decisions, this control involves the medial and
middle frontal gyri—areas related to the detection and resolution
of conflicting information and to the maintenance of goal-relevant
representations. In some cases, then, training leads participants to
work harder, in cognitive terms, as they learn to marshal the
attention and control necessary for optimal performance.
When will training promote automaticity in a judgment task, and
when will it promote control? A probable moderator is task complexity (Birnboim, 2003; Green & Bavelier, 2003). On tasks with
simple stimuli (e.g., the words presented in a Stroop task), practice
allows participants to streamline the judgment process, performing
it easily and automatically. Only when the task is difficult (e.g.,
involving visually complex stimuli or ever-changing task requirements) does practice seem to promote control. As Birnboim (2003)
wrote, “automatic processing relies on a reduction of stimulus
information to its perceptual and motor features” (p. 29). When
complexity renders this kind of reduction impossible, controlled
processing may be required to “extract more meaningful information” (p. 29). Consistent with this argument, Green and Bavelier
(2003) have shown that practice on a visually complex video game
(i.e., Medal of Honor; Electronic Arts, Redwood City, CA) improves performance on attention-demanding tasks, but practice on
a visually simple video game (i.e., Tetris; Electronorgtechnica,
Moscow, Russia) does not.
Task complexity has tremendous relevance for the officer engaged in a potentially hostile encounter. Faced with a range of
irrelevant and confusing factors (e.g., darkness, noise, movement,
bystanders), the officer must determine whether or not a small and
relatively inconspicuous weapon is present. On a reduced scale,
our paradigm attempts to simulate this visual and cognitive challenge. The task employs a variety of complex and realistic backgrounds (e.g., parking lots, train stations). By varying backgrounds
and suspect poses (e.g., standing, crouching), as well as the timing
of stimulus onset, we prevent participants from knowing when or
where an object will appear. When the object does appear, it
accounts for roughly 0.2% of the visual field. To respond correctly,
participants must engage in a careful, controlled search for a small
cue amid a complex stimulus array. In contrast to the visually
simple tasks typically employed in research on training, training on
this relatively complex task may not foster automaticity in the
shoot/don’t-shoot decision. In our task—as in a police encounter—
even highly trained experts may need to fully engage executive
control processes to identify the object and execute the appropriate
response (Weissman et al., 2002).
If experts are better able than novices to engage control processes, it stands to reason that police officers, whose training and
on-the-job experiences routinely force them to identify weapons in
complex environments, should make fewer errors in our shoot/
don’t-shoot task and should show reduced racial bias in those
errors (i.e., their expertise should minimize stereotypic errors).
This training-based reduction in bias, which we might call a
“police as experts” pattern, serves as our primary hypothesis (H1).
But control may not entirely eliminate race-based processing. The
necessity of a slow, effortful, and controlled search for the object
leaves open the possibility that even experts will inadvertently
process racial information. Research suggests that racial cues are
often perceived quickly, whether or not the participant intends to
do so (Cunningham et al., 2004; Ito & Urland, 2003), and accordingly, a slow visual search for the object should glean racial
information. By activating stereotypes, these cues may interfere
with the speed of the decision-making process. By virtue of enhanced control, experts may rarely, if ever, shoot an unarmed
Black individual; but because even experts must search (slowly)
for the object, they are likely to perceive the target’s skin color and
facial features, triggering relevant stereotypes. Again, experts may
effectively override this interference and make an unbiased response (“don’t shoot”), but because the weapon judgment is not
automatic, the controlled decision to stereotype incongruent targets
may still take more time. This leads us to predict a dissociation,
such that a target’s race may affect the speed of the expert’s
decisions, even though it has no impact on their accuracy.
To examine this possibility, the present research extends past
work in two critical ways. First, we examine bias in both response
times and errors. In past research (e.g., Correll et al., 2002; Payne,
2001), results from these two measures mirrored one another and
were characterized as more or less interchangeable. But the measures may capture partially distinct aspects of the decision process.
Latency—the time necessary for a participant to respond correctly
to a given target—should depend on the difficulty of processing
the stimulus. The fact that stereotype-incongruent targets (unarmed
Black targets and armed White targets) generally produce longer
latencies suggests that participants have greater difficulty arriving
at a correct decision for these stimuli. Processing difficulty may
also influence error rates, but errors also reflect the participant’s
ultimate decision about which response to make. Particularly from
an officer’s perspective, the distinction between a slow-butaccurate response (e.g., hesitating and then deciding not to fire)
and an incorrect response (e.g., shooting an unarmed suspect)
assumes great importance.
This research also advances our understanding by comparing
police officers with samples of laypeople drawn from the communities those officers serve. Community samples provide a crucial
baseline against which we can compare the police. As we have
already discussed, one of the most damaging consequences of
officer-involved shootings in which a minority suspect is killed is
the implication that police inappropriately use race when making
the decision to fire. However, given the prevalence of bias in the
decision to shoot (which has been documented in all types of
people, from White college students to Black community members), how can we interpret the magnitude of any bias we might
observe among the police? Inhabitants of the community served by
a given police department provide a critical comparison. As members of a common culture, these individuals experience many of
the same influences, whether very global (e.g., national broadcast
media) or very local (e.g., racial and ethnic composition of the
neighborhood, local levels of poverty and crime) in nature. To
fully characterize the presence of any bias among police, it is
therefore critical to examine bias in the communities they serve.
No such comparison is available in existing research. Although we
have elaborated the hypothesis that police will demonstrate less
bias than the community, particularly with respect to their error
rates (H1), we note that the comparison between police and community presents two other possibilities.
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Of course, it is also possible that officers will show more
pronounced bias than community members (H2) or that police and
civilians will show relatively similar patterns of bias (H0). In line
with the former hypothesis, Teahan (1975a, 1975b) presented
evidence that police departments acculturate White officers into
more prejudicial views during their first years on the job. Similarly, the Christopher Commission’s investigation into the Los
Angeles Police Department’s 1991 beating of Rodney King reported that officers who adopted anti-Black attitudes were more
likely to be promoted within the department (Christopher, 1998).
This ostensible culture of bias may find expression in police
officers’ relatively high social dominance orientation (Sidanius &
Pratto, 1999), reflecting support for the group-based (and racebased) hierarchical structure of society (see Sorenson et al., 1993,
for similar conclusions on the basis of police use of force). Given
these findings, we might reasonably expect a “police as profilers”
pattern, with officers relying heavily on racial information when
making their decisions to shoot.
Finally, police officers and community members may show
equivalent levels of racial bias in decisions to shoot. Inasmuch as
police and community members are subject to the same general
cognitive heuristics (Hamilton & Trolier, 1986) and sociocultural
influences (Devine & Elliot, 1995), the two groups may demonstrate similar patterns of behavior in the video game simulation.
This prediction would yield a pattern we might call “police as
Our primary hypothesis derives from the possibility that practice
enables police officers to more effectively exert control over their
behavioral choices (relative to untrained civilians). That is, H1
suggests that officers may more extensively engage in controlled
processing operations during the course of the shoot/don’t-shoot
task. Because of this difference in processing, we predict a divergence between measures of bias that are based on errors and
measures that are based on reaction times. By contrast, H2 and H0
offer no clear reason to predict differences between officers and
civilians in terms of cognitive processing, and (accordingly) they
offer no reason to expect a divergence between error-rate and
reaction-time measures.
Study 1
Overview. Three samples of participants completed a 100-trial
video game simulation in which armed and unarmed White and
Black men appeared in a variety of background images. Participants were instructed that any armed target posed an imminent
threat and should be shot as quickly as possible. Unarmed targets
posed no threat and should be flagged accordingly by pushing the
don’t-shoot button, again as quickly as possible. The speed and
accuracy with which these decisions were made served as our
primary dependent variables, and performance was compared
across three samples: officers from the Denver Police Department,
civilians drawn from the communities those officers served, and a
group of officers from across the country attending a 2-day police
training seminar.
Participants. For the purposes of law enforcement, the city of
Denver is divided into six districts. With the help of the command
staff, officers were recruited for this study from four of these
districts during roll call. Participation was completely voluntary,
and officers were assured that there would be no way to identify
individual performance on the task and that the command staff
would not be informed of who did and did not participate. Officers
were required to complete the simulation during off-duty hours.
Our goal was to recruit primarily patrol officers, and, in this effort,
we were successful: 84% of the sample listed patrol as their job
category. Investigative officers accounted for 9% of the sample,
administrative officers for 2% of the sample, with the remaining
5% of the officers from a mixture of other job categories. A total
of 124 officers participated in the study (9 female, 114 male, 1
missing gender; 85 White, 16 Black, 19 Latina/o, 3 other, 1
missing ethnicity; mean age ? 37.9 years). Each received $50.
To obtain a companion civilian sample, we enlisted the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in each of the four districts,
recruiting community members to perform the simulation on or
around the same days as the police officers. Several of the DMVs
were in areas with a high concentration of Spanish-speaking citizens. For these areas, a bilingual research assistant recruited and
instructed the participants.1 A total of 135 civilians participated in
the study. Eight participants were dropped from the analyses: 2
because of a computer malfunction and 6 because they had fewer
than five correct trials for at least one of the four cells of the
simulation design. Thus, the reported results for this sample are
based on 127 civilians (51 female, 73 male, 3 missing gender; 39
White, 16 Black, 63 Latina/o, 9 other; mean age ? 35.5 years).
Each received $20.
To collect the national police sample, we attended a training
seminar for officers. This was one of several seminars that officers
voluntarily attend to obtain additional training in some particular
area of law enforcement. The seminars are specifically geared for
patrol officers, rather than administrative personnel. The sample of
officers obtained for this study came from 14 different states, and
only 7% worked in some administrative capacity. The remaining
job categories included patrol officers (58%), investigative officers
(14%), traffic officers (7%), SWAT team members (3%), and a
sprinkling of other categories (11%). Although this clearly is not a
random national sample of officers, it offers a greater diversity of
background than the Denver sample. An announcement regarding
the study was made during the seminar, and officers were invited
to participate on one of two evenings after the conclusion of the
seminar for that day. A total of 113 officers participated in the
study (12 female, 100 male, 1 missing gender; 72 White, 10 Black,
15 Latina/o, 13 other, 3 missing ethnicity; mean age ? 38.4 years).
Each received $50.
Video game simulation. Fifty men (25 Black, 25 White) were
photographed in five poses holding one of a variety of objects,
including four guns (a large black 9 mm, a small black revolver, a
large silver revolver, and a small silver automatic) and four nonguns (a large black wallet, a small black cell phone, a large silver
Coke can, and a small silver cell phone). For each individual, we
Many thanks to Alinne Barrera who tirelessly and happily made time
in her busy schedule to accompany us on these sojourns at the Denver
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
selected two images, one with a gun and one with an innocuous
object, resulting in 100 distinct images (25 of each type: armed
White, armed Black, unarmed White, and unarmed Black), which
served as the principal stimuli, or targets, in the game. Forty of
these images were drawn from previous work (see Correll et al.,
2002, for example stimuli). The others were added in an effort to
diversify the sample of targets. Using Photoshop, we embedded
targets in 20 otherwise unpopulated background scenes, including
images of the countryside, city parks, facades of apartment buildings, and so on. Each target was randomly assigned to a particular
background, with the restriction that each type of target should be
represented with equal frequency in each background.
Design. The video game, developed in PsyScope (Cohen,
MacWhinney, Flatt, & Provost, 1993), followed a 2 ? 2 withinsubjects design, with Target Race (Black vs. White) and Object
Type (gun vs. nongun) as repeated factors (see Correll et al.,
2002). On any given trial of the game, a random number (0 –3) of
preliminary backgrounds appeared in slideshow fashion. These
scenes were drawn from the set of 20 original unpopulated background images. Each remained on the screen for a random period
of time (500 ms– 800 ms). Subsequently, a final background appeared (e.g., an apartment building), again for a random duration.
This background was replaced by an image of a target person
embedded in that background (e.g., an armed White man standing
in front of the building). From the player’s perspective, the target
simply seemed to appear in the scene. The player was instructed to
respond as quickly as possible whenever a target appeared, pressing a button labeled shoot if the target was armed and pressing a
button labeled don’t shoot if the target was unarmed. The game
awarded points on the basis of performance. Correctly pressing
don’t shoot in response to an unarmed target earned 5 points, but
shooting earned a penalty of 20 points; pressing shoot in response
to an armed target earned 10 points, but pressing don’t shoot
earned a penalty of 40 points (the implication being that the hostile
target shot the player). Failure to respond to a target within 850 ms
of target onset resulted in a penalty of 10 points. Feedback, both
visual and auditory, and point totals were presented at the conclusion of every trial. The game consisted of a 16-trial practice block
and a 100-trial test block.
Procedure. Officers in th

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