09/27/2016 09:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Terence Crutcher's Murder: This Is Not About Implicit Bias


In the wake of yet another killing of an unarmed black person by a police officer, we are once again hearing about the importance of fighting implicit bias. Now, I am completely on board with the thought that it's important to fight implicit bias: I just published two co-edited volumes on it. It's important, and it explains a lot. But it does not explain this murder, and it is the wrong place to look for a solution to the problem of police shootings of unarmed black people.

Why am I so sure about this? Let's start with a bit of the basics about implicit racial biases. Implicit racial biases are largely unconscious and largely automatic racial attitudes, which have been shown to influence behavior toward members of racial groups. (They can be tested for in a variety of ways, although the most well-known is the Implicit Association Test.) A lot of attention has been devoted to the fact that these may be at odds with genuine deeply-felt egalitarian commitments. This makes implicit biases especially puzzling and uniquely disturbing to the self-conception of one who worries (as she should) that she may harbor such biases despite her conscious commitments. And I think it also accounts for a lot of the appeal of explanations based in implicit bias, which may seem to exculpate.

And how do these biases show up in behavior? In lots of ways. For example, they've been shown to correlate with friendly or unfriendly microbehaviours. But the most obviously relevant is the Shooter Bias. In the Shooter Bias task, participants play a video game in which their job is to shoot quickly if an image of a person with a gun appears and to not shoot if the person is not armed. They are then presented with images of people holding ambiguous objects, that could be either (for example) a phone or a gun. Both police and civilians are more likely to mistakenly shoot black men holding ambiguous objects.

This study crops up regularly in discussions of police shootings of unarmed black people, and it's obvious why. But what is mentioned less commonly is the follow-up studies, like the one from 2005 which showed that with training police were able to eliminate this bias. And this is really a very important fact. This shows that we are not helpless victims of implicit bias, but that we can train ourselves--or be trained-- out of it. And it shows that for at least a decade (I'm being charitable here, and assuming this was a shocking finding) there has been clear evidence of how the people sworn to protect and serve can prevent themselves from accidentally shooting unarmed people. Why is this so important? It's important because it means that even if a shooting results from implicit bias that does not mean that it should be excused. If police forces know about implicit bias, and know how to fight it in their officers, they are deeply culpable for failing to eliminate it. And, in this day and age, not knowing about implicit bias is no excuse either. The implicit bias that individuals might harbor does nothing to excuse the institutional failure to train police properly.

But now let's return to Terence Crutcher. Terence Crutcher was not holding a phone, or any ambiguous object, and this was clear because his arms were in the air. Implicit bias can explain how someone could mistake one object for another that it resembles. But, unless Officer Betty Shelby had severely impaired vision, this is not what happened. And indeed her account is that she thought he might be under the influence of drugs and that she was fearful when he went to the side of his car with his hands up, thinking he was reaching into the window. So, even on her own telling, she did not mistakenly think that he had a gun. Shooter bias offers no illumination here.

So what could possibly explain Officer Shelby's behavior? Many things, ranging from explicit racism (yes, this is more than possible even though there are documented cases of her being helpful to particular black people) to panic to (I'm considering all possibilities here) a belief that anyone with their hands up is a threat that deserves to be shot. She says that she found it strange for him to put his hands up when she had not asked him to do so. This does not, to put it mildly, seem a threatening enough behaviour to warrant a fatal shooting. We don't know all of what went on in her head. (Maybe there is even some role for implicit bias.) Although answering this question may be very important to Officer Shelby and her loved ones, however, I don't think it's one we need to care about. Whatever else is true about the causes of her behaviour, it is abundantly clear that either she was not properly trained about acceptable use of force, or she was unconcerned about making an unacceptable use of force. We know this, because surely proper training would have made it clear that shooting an unarmed person with his arms in the air is a paradigm case of unacceptability. And proper accountability would mean that doing so not only ends your career but sends you to jail for murder.

Unfortunately, we also know that shooting unarmed people of colour who have done nothing wrong is common. And that it neither ends your career nor sends you to jail. This is the problem that we need to address. Both individual police officers and their departments need to be held accountable for shooting people they are meant to protect. Implicit bias may sometimes play a role in these shootings. But it is, as Crutcher's murder so clearly illustrates, very far from the whole story. If our concern is how to stop unarmed people of colour being killed by the police we need to focus our attention on reforms that make both individual officers and police forces accountable for these killings.