Perceptions about police use of deadly force and race: A psychologist's view

Police-citizen deadly force and other use-of-force encounters can be reduced through training, education and community engagement

I recently returned from testifying at the trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, which resulted in an acquittal on first-degree murder, but a conviction on second-degree murder and other charges in the officer-involved shooting death of Laquan McDonald.

I’m not going to discuss the specifics of that case here, but I do want to make some points about policing, race and the use of deadly force gleaned from empirical research, my clinical work with officers who have been in deadly force encounters, and my experiences as an expert witness in contested officer-involved shooting cases, almost all of which involve some combination of tactical, psychological, racial and social issues.

People’s reality is what they experience

While some deadly force encounters spontaneously erupt, most evolve more slowly in a dangerous dance of vicious cycles and tipping points.
While some deadly force encounters spontaneously erupt, most evolve more slowly in a dangerous dance of vicious cycles and tipping points. (Photo/PoliceOne)

First, respect people’s perceptions, even if you question their interpretations of those perceptions. Black citizens experience themselves as unequally targeted by police use of force. Police officers experience interactions with black citizens as potentially more dangerous than with other citizens. The bad news is that both groups may be right. U.S. Department of Justice research shows that if you are a young black male, you are proportionately more likely than any other demographic group member to be killed by a police officer. If you are a police officer, you are proportionately more likely to be killed by a young black male than by any other demographic group member. [1] If this is true, let’s try to find out why, and what we can do about it.

Don’t jump to conclusions, but follow the science

Research shows that a major part of the equation in a given police-citizen deadly force encounter is accounted for by the subject’s age and gender. The second most likely group to kill police or be killed by them is comprised of young white males. Young females and older males and females of any race are far behind as either slayers or the slain. This reduces, but does not eliminate, a significant racial component.

While you can’t control age and sex, you can control behavior

While some deadly force encounters spontaneously erupt, most evolve more slowly in a dangerous dance of vicious cycles and tipping points. Officers confront a suspicious citizen. The citizen feels unfairly singled out and reacts. Officers react to the reaction. A heated encounter ensues. In the majority of cases, verbal de-escalation or calm show of force is effective in neutralizing further aggression. But in a few instances, neither party backs down, cools down, or tries to calm down the encounter, or such mitigatory attempts fail with a citizen who is intoxicated, mentally ill, confused, or enraged, or with officers who are irritated, exhausted, caught by surprise, or inadequately trained.

The citizen continues to resist the officer’s commands, a knee or elbow jerks here or there, the citizen is perceived to make a threatening move with a weapon, dangerous object, or even bare hands, and the flashover into a deadly force encounter may cost someone his or her life. In retrospect, some of these tragic occurrences might have been averted, while, in other cases, the outcome seems to have been inevitable. But none of these event pathways is predetermined; they only highlight the need for better scenario-based training in safe, strategic de-escalation, culturally competent communication skills, and, possibly, systemic policy adjustments within the particular police agency.

In any life and death emergency, the brain magnifies the perception of threat

Officers involved in deadly force encounters that have been administratively cleared and unequivocably ruled justified (which are, of course, the overwhelming majority of such incidents) commonly report a range of perceptual and cognitive distortions at the scene that made the suspect appear closer, bigger, faster and more menacing than is later judged to be the case based on witness accounts and/or video recordings. [2] When a use-of-force encounter is contested, this kind of post-hoc analysis may be used as “evidence” that the officer acted negligently or maliciously, when he or she was actually responding to the threat as it was perceived at the time. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have ruled that a police officer’s actions must be judged on the basis of what a reasonable officer would do in that situation, based on that officer’s perception and understanding of the situation as it exists at the time. [3]

Officers frequently restrain their use of force

In empirical studies and individual post-shooting clinical interviews, many officers report having restrained their use of deadly force, even when it would have be legally justified. [4] Sometimes this is done for purely tactical reasons, other times precisely out of concern for later accusations of excessive force or racial bias. In fact, studies that measure electrophysiological brain responses to threatening stimuli in simulated shooting scenarios have found that neural systems involved in response inhibition are more strongly activated by experimentally presented images of black citizens holding a weapon than white citizens. [5] This implies that the study subjects are actually hesitating longer before firing at the black images, as if their brains are struggling with the conflict of whether or not to take the simulated shot. However, other research suggests that this hesitation response may not occur in those officers who openly express racial prejudices. [6]

Next steps

Even one unnecessary death is too many, so it is time for all of us to speak frankly. There is racism in law enforcement just as there is racism in American society. But, while not naïve to social reality, most citizens do expect the police to act professionally in preserving their safety, and most cops do take this responsibility seriously.

Yes, there are some bad cops, and although they comprise a minority of police officers, every law enforcement agency owes it to the public they serve, not to mention their own credibility and safety, to identify and assertively deal with those officers that willfully abuse their authority. [7] Police and community members should be collaborators, not adversaries, in this endeavor. Displaced anger should not be used as a pretext for persecuting officers for doing their jobs, and collegial blue-wall loyalty should not be an excuse for shielding bad cops who persistently fail to do those jobs in a lawful, professional manner.

Research and practical experience show that police-citizen deadly force and other use-of-force encounters can be reduced through proper training, education and community engagement. Human nature can be changed by human intelligence; we do it in technology and medicine, and we can do it in psychology and social relations. [8]

This will take time, effort and commitment. Start with acknowledging people’s reality and having the respect to listen before you argue. Increase non-enforcement contact and other constructive communication between officers and citizens. Do the hard work of reasoning through and articulating your point. You think I couldn’t understand? Help me understand. Make me understand. That goes for both sides, and if we can do that, maybe we’ll all feel a little safer.


1. Brown JM, Langan PA. Policing and homicide, 1976–1998: Justifiable homicide by police, police officers murdered by felons. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 2001.

2. Artwohl A. Memory and decision making under stress. In Ross DL, Vilke GM (Eds.). Guidelines for Investigating Officer-Involved Shootings, Arrest-Related Deaths, and Deaths in Custody (pp. 96-115). New York: Routledge, 2018.

3. Graham v. Connor (1989). 490 U.S. 386.

4. Cox WTL, Devine PG, Plant EA, Schwartz LL. Toward a comprehensive understanding of officers’ shooting decisions: No simple answers to this complex problem. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36, 356-364, 2014.

5. Amodio DM, et al. Neural signals for the detection of unintentional race bias. Psychological Science, 15, 88-93, 2004.

6. Correll J, Urland GR, Ito TA. Event-related potentials and the decision to shoot: The role of threat perception and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 120-128, 2006.

7. Miller L. Good cop – bad cop: Problem officers, law enforcement culture, and strategies for success. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 19, 30-48, 2004.

8. Miller L. The Psychology of Police Deadly Force Encounters: Science, Practice, and Policy. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas (in press).

Note: The information in this column is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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