'But I Thought He Had a Gun' - Race and Police Use of Deadly Force

52 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2004  

Cynthia Lee

George Washington University Law School

Abstract

It is undisputed that Blacks are disproportionately represented among the victims of police shootings. In a comprehensive review of the literature on police use of deadly force, James Fyfe reports that every study that has examined this issue [has] found that blacks are represented disproportionately among those at the wrong end of police guns. Although Blacks represent approximately 13 percent of the population in the United States, in parts of the country they constitute 60 to 85 percent of the victims of police shootings. On average, Blacks are more than six times as likely as Whites to be shot by police, and in large cities are killed by police at least three times more often than Whites. Latinos (or Hispanics) are about twice as likely as Whites, but only half as likely as Blacks, to be shot and killed by police. There is a noticeable lack of data regarding police use of force against other non-Black minorities, such as Asian Americans, Arab Americans, South Asians and Native Americans. However, reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch suggest that, in relation to their representation in society at large, these other minorities are also disproportionately on the receiving end of police force.

While widespread consensus exists that racial minorities are disproportionately represented as victims of police shootings, the reason for this disproportion is hotly disputed. Most people who have an opinion on the subject fall within one of two camps which John Goldkamp, in his study of race and police shootings, calls Belief Perspective I and Belief Perspective II. Proponents of Belief Perspective I believe racism on the part of police officers and police departments results in one trigger finger for racial minorities and another for Whites. According to this view, police officers intentionally single out racial minorities for harsher treatment. Proponents of Belief Perspective II, in contrast, contend that race does not influence the average police officer's decision to use force. According to this perspective, Blacks and other non-Whites are disproportionately represented as victims of police shootings because they disproportionately commit armed robberies, carry firearms, and engage in behavior that police officers are likely to find threatening, such as resisting arrest.

The problem with Goldkamp's two belief perspectives theory is that it frames the problem in all-or-nothing terms. Either police officers are bigots who intentionally target racial minorities (Belief Perspective I) or they are completely unbiased and color-blind (Belief Perspective II). The truth more likely lies somewhere between these two extremes.

In this essay, I offer a third way to explain the disparate treatment respective segments of the population experience at the hands of police officers - an explanation that accommodates both the lived experiences of persons of color and the belief that police officers use force more often against persons of color because such individuals appear to be more threatening to the officer. Borrowing from Charles Lawrence's theory of unconscious racism, I suggest that racial stereotypes operate at a subconscious level to influence the police officer's decision to use deadly force. The police officer may not consciously decide to use deadly force because of the suspect's race, but the suspect's race nonetheless influences the officer. Racial stereotypes thus may alter the officer's perception of danger, threat, and resistance to authority. A simple question, Officer, why am I being stopped? may be perceived as behavior challenging the officer's authority when asked by someone who is Black. Police officers may also see danger more readily when dealing with a person of color. Just as racial and ethnic stereotypes influence private citizens' decisions to use force in self-defense, such stereotypes can also influence police officers' decisions to use force.

I review recent social science studies which provide support for my theory and provide examples of how racial stereotypes can affect perception through actual cases. Finally, I suggest a race-switching jury instruction as a means to help de-bias juror decision making.

Keywords: race, police, racial stereotypes, prejudice, stereotypes, deadly force, bias, unconscious racism, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Thomas, Tyisha Miller

JEL Classification: K14, J7

Suggested Citation

Lee, Cynthia, 'But I Thought He Had a Gun' - Race and Police Use of Deadly Force. Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, 2004. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=608781

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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