Sticker Shock or The Price is Right?

Recent research shows that simulation training reduces racial bias in shoot/don't shoot decisions.

When the department budget gets stretched, what's the first thing to get cut? That's right--training, especially high-cost, staff-intensive training. Simulation training, particularly when it involves weapons, is arguably the highest-cost, most staff-intensive training departments typically do. Any weapons-involved scenario requires extreme attention to safety, with multiple instructors serving as safety officer, scenario leader, and so on. Officers normally go through the simulations singly or in pairs, making the time cost of the training high as well (and producing ripple effects because beats need to be covered when officers are training, and that may require overtime). If dedicated training weapons and ammunition (e.g. Simunition™ or Air-Soft™) are used, the cost rises even further. No wonder departments often balk at requiring simulation training. All that money could be used for so many other needed expenses--overtime, equipment, crime data analysis, to name just a few.

But now there is solid evidence that simulation training can help prevent another huge expense: damage awards from lawsuits alleging racial bias in officer-involved shootings. Recent research reported in the June 2 edition of the New York Times shows that properly trained officers are less likely than community members to allow racial bias to influence their decision whether to shoot a suspect. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, documents a cleverly designed experiment involving police officers and community members.

What They Did

Here's how it worked (I'll spare you the statistical analysis). The researchers tested three groups: 124 Denver police officers, 135 civilians from the Denver area, and 113 officers from across the country (recruited from those attending a training seminar). They constructed a video game in which the viewer would see several background scenes, such as streets, parks, apartment building exteriors, etc. presented sequentially as a slide show. Then a figure would appear in front of the last background viewed. This figure would be either a white or black male, holding an object. The object could be a gun (several different types and colors of handguns were used) or a non-gun object, such as a cell phone, wallet, or soda can.

Fifty men (half of them white and half black) were photographed holding an object in five poses. The researchers then chose two images of each man for use in the game, one holding a gun and one holding something else, providing a total of 100 images, evenly divided between white and black and between threatening and not.

Participants were instructed to press a "shoot" button if the man was holding a gun and a "don't shoot" button if he was holding something else. They got ten points for a correct shoot response, but were penalized 20 points for shooting an unarmed person. They got five points for a correct don't-shoot response, but were penalized 40 points for failing to shoot an armed person--on the assumption that if they failed to stop the threat, the armed person would shoot them. If the participant failed to make either choice in the allotted time (less than a second), he or she was penalized ten points.

As the participant went through the 100 trials in the game, his or her responses were timed. By combining timing with the number of correct responses and separately calculating results for white and black "suspects," researchers could determine the influence of racial bias on two things: how well participants could discriminate between armed and unarmed figures, and how readily they made the decision to shoot.

What They Found

The results were fascinating.

First, both officer groups were quicker than the civilians to identify when the figure was holding a weapon. Well, I should hope so! We are trained observers, right? (Well, for some things. I can be astoundingly oblivious of things like re-arranged furniture.) Somewhat like the phenomenon of buying a new car and suddenly seeing that model everywhere, officers are trained to look for weapons, so when they're there, we see them more readily than an untrained civilian.

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