A Black man walks toward a white police officer, and the officer thinks he may be armed. The officer draws his gun and shoots the man several times in the chest, killing him. Later, the officer learns the Black man was unarmed, but the life is already gone. In the ensuing days, shouts of “Black Lives Matter” fill the streets.

How people perceive this all too familiar situation varies dramatically. Some view this event as egregious police brutality, while others view it as justified use of force. These differing viewpoints have resulted in bitter debates and riots across the United States.

Given the public, and often heated, debates surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, we have been working to understand the psychological processes that lead to these divides. We reason that if we can understand the sources of diverging perceptions of violence between the police and Black civilians, then perhaps we can develop ways to minimize these disparities.

To begin to test these ideas, we recruited large samples of people from across the United States to complete studies online. Across the studies, participants read about a wrongful death suit brought forth by a family whose Black son was killed in a police shooting. We then asked them to imagine that they were a jury member tasked with reaching a verdict: was the officer “guilty” or “not guilty?”

Although the case we presented was not real, we loosely modeled the details after the fatal shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte to mirror the types of complex officer-civilian interactions that jury members might be asked to decipher in the real world. As a jury would do, our research participants read through the details of the case: the officer suspected that the suspect had a weapon and drugs; the suspect was viewed backing away from the officer with something in his hand; the suspect’s wife told the officer that the suspect was unarmed; the officer shot because the suspect didn’t drop the object; no weapon was found at the scene; the officer recently showed high levels of implicit racial bias on a measure administered by the police department; and so on. The case was complicated and confusing, and purposefully so. We wanted to see how people weighed this evidence and ultimately who they thought was to blame.

After reading through these details, participants were asked to report their verdict: is the officer guilty of wrongdoing? And, which evidence was most relevant to their conclusion? Finally, participants rated how much they liked Black people. We included this last measure because, ideally, jury decision-making should involve an objective consideration of evidence—unmarred by personal biases.

However, despite the plea for objectivity, the degree to which participants reported liking Black people played a key role in how they weighed the evidence – and, ultimately, in their verdict. Participants who reported liking Black people the least perceived the officer as being in more danger when interacting with the Black suspect, consistent with widespread stereotypes that Black people are threatening. At the same time, they rated the officer’s racial biases as less relevant to the case. Critically, these distinct ways of interpreting the situation led to a weighty outcome: verdicts of “not guilty.”  In other words, racial biases led participants to perceive that the officer was in danger and to perceive that the racial biases of the officer didn’t matter. Then, those perceptions led to lower ratings of the officer’s guilt.  

Our research highlights a very real problem in assigning guilt in cases of police violence against Black people: people’s views of “reality” are strongly influenced by who they are and what they believe. In our studies, racially-biased people viewed police officers as less guilty when they killed a Black man because they viewed the officer as in greater danger and they viewed the officer’s racial bias as unimportant.  Our research suggests that, just as people can hear many different messages when someone chants “Black Lives Matter,” the perception of legal responsibility when Black lives are lost may be similarly polarizing.

For Further Reading:

Cooley, E., Lei, R., Brown-Iannuzzi, J., & Ellerkamp, T. (2019). Personal prejudice, other guilt: explicit prejudice toward Black people predicts guilty verdicts for White officers who kill Black men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin45(5), 754-766.

Erin Cooley is a faculty member at Colgate University who studies intergroup conflict and discrimination. Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi is a faculty member at the University of Virginia who studies why group disparities persist. Ryan Lei is a faculty member at Haverford College who studies the development of stereotyping and prejudice.