08/19/2014 11:22 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Michael Brown: Stereotypes and Racial Disparities in Police Killings

Michael Brown's death and its violent aftermath have generated international headlines. On August 9, 2014, at approximately 12:01 p.m., police officer Darren Wilson encountered Michael Brown and his friend as they walked down a street in Ferguson, Missouri. A confrontation ensued which ended with Michael Brown being shot several times by officer Wilson. The use of deadly force against Michael Brown, who was not armed, cannot be justified under any of the varying scenarios that have been presented in the reporting on this incident.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Brown was detained for walking down the middle of a street, blocking traffic. Initially, the police department refused to disclose the name of the shooter. After nearly a week of rioting and an international outcries, the name of the officer was released.

On the same day, however, the police released a video which shows an individual being shoved into a rack in a convenience store by an African American male. Chief Jackson also released documents and surveillance video alleging that Mr. Brown was tied to a robbery at the convenience store. Hours later, Jackson held another news conference in which he said officer Wilson was not aware of the robbery when he stopped Mr. Brown.

So what happened? Three eyewitnesses reported that Brown was shot several times as he ran with his hands raised in a gesture of surrender. One of them, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown that day, said officer Wilson confronted them because they were walking in the middle of the street. Wilson cursed at them and ordered them onto the sidewalk. When they refused to comply, Wilson grabbed Brown through the window of his cruiser, pulled out a pistol, and shot him. Wilson then chased Brown, shot him in the back, and shot him five or six more times.

Even if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that Brown robbed the convenience store and was stopped based on a suspicion that he did so, the use of deadly force would not have been justified. A law enforcement officer making an arrest is justified in using deadly force only when he reasonably believes that it is necessary to effectuate the arrest.

Furthermore, a police officer has the right to shoot a fleeing suspect only if he has reasonable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of serious physical injury to the officer or others. Brown was not armed. The eyewitnesses' statements indicate that he did not pose a risk of harm to officer Wilson. Did Brown reach for Wilson's gun as has been suggested; an unarmed man running toward a policeman with a firearm whose deadly shots are tearing through his head and arms? It seems unlikely. And, in any event, the fact that Brown was shot multiple times makes it highly unlikely that there is a credible justification for the several shots revealed by the autopsy.

Michael Brown's death is the merely the latest in a long line of episodes in which white police officers used deadly force against unarmed black men. Studies prepared by academic researchers have found that African Americans are four times more likely than whites to die during or after an encounter with a law enforcement officer. A number of other studies have examined the influence of a suspect's race on a research participant's decision to shoot a suspect. The studies used video simulations in which participants are presented with a series of images of black or white men who are armed (holding a gun) or unarmed (such as holding a wallet or cell phone). Participants were instructed to shoot only if the suspect is armed.

The shooting studies conducted by several different groups of researchers all found that shooting behavior differed based on the race of the suspect. The principal finding was that images of unarmed black men were more likely to be shot than were images of unarmed white men. These studies show how unconscious stereotypes operate. A large body of research has shown that racial bias is pervasive among many who consciously subscribe to a belief in racial equality. They harbor unconscious racial prejudices that can cause them to engage in discriminatory conduct without consciously realizing they are doing so.

Prejudice and stereotypes are the products of ordinary perceptions, categorization, learning, memory and judgment. Categorization is the process by which ideas and objects are recognized, differentiated and understood. Categorization is an essential cognitive process that allows individuals to relate new experiences to old experiences; the unfamiliar to the familiar. The process is automatic and operates in milliseconds.

Categorization can also trigger stereotypes. When an individual is seen as a member of a social group, perceptions about that group's characteristics and behavior influence judgments made about them. Stereotyping involves the creation of a mental image of a typical member of a particular category. Individuals are perceived as undifferentiated members of a group, lacking any significant differences from other individuals within the group.

The stereotype of young black men as dangerous criminals is deeply embedded in the American psyche. It is almost certainly a factor contributing to the stark racial disparities in the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers.

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