Race, Policing, and Lethal Force: Remedying Shooter Bias with Martial Arts Training

29 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2016

See all articles by Cynthia Lee

Cynthia Lee

George Washington University Law School

Date Written: 2016


This paper seeks to join the national conversation on race and policing. This conversation about race and policing should be of concern to everyone because problematic shootings by police cost taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements arising from civil lawsuits. These monies could instead be going towards improving social services, schools, and jobs. The need for reform of policing practices also transcends race. Almost half of all individuals shot and killed by police each year are White.

The paper starts by examining the social science research on race and the decision to shoot. By and large, this research demonstrates that most people are quicker to see a weapon when dealing with a Black suspect than when dealing with a White suspect. Interestingly, several shooter bias studies have found that police officers are better than civilians at deciding when to shoot, suggesting that training and experience can improve accuracy and reduce racial bias in the decision to shoot. Some of the more recent shooter bias studies suggest a counter bias. In these studies, police officers were slower to shoot armed Black suspects over armed White suspects.

The contradictory findings of the various shooter bias studies suggest that implicit racial bias may be playing less of a role in police shootings than commonly thought. Indeed, recent research by Phillip Atiba Goff and L. Song Richardson on police officers and stereotype threat suggest that racial bias plays less of a role in police decisions to shoot than whether the officer feels confident in his or her ability to command respect from the subject. Similarly, Frank Rudy Cooper suggests that police officers may be quicker to act punitively against Black suspects than White suspects left because of implicit racial bias and more because they perceive Blacks to pose a greater threat to their masculinity than Whites.

In light of the research described above, Professor Lee offers two proposals for reform at the departmental level. First, she proposes that police departments implement training aimed at improving accuracy and reducing bias in the use of deadly force. Fortunately, studies have shown that repeated exposure to Black and White suspects when race is not a diagnostic cue as to whether the suspect is holding a gun results in less biased and more accurate decisions about when to shoot over the long-term. Professor Lee suggests that police departments borrow from these studies but use high-definition shooting simulators rather than computer keyboard exercises to more closely replicate on-the-street experiences. Second, she proposes that police departments mandate ongoing traditional martial arts training for all officers.

Keywords: police, race, use of force, deadly force, shooter bias, implicit racial bias, martial arts debiasing

Suggested Citation

Lee, Cynthia, Race, Policing, and Lethal Force: Remedying Shooter Bias with Martial Arts Training (2016). Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 79, No. 3, 2016, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2016-34, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-34, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2822528

Cynthia Lee (Contact Author)

George Washington University Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
(202) 994-4768 (Phone)

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