Shoot or Don’t Shoot?

The police shooting of unarmed black Americans has raised the question of why such shootings occurred. While some have rushed to claim that it is a blend of racism and brutality, the matter deserves careful consideration.

While there are various explanations, the most plausible involves a blend of factors. The first, which does have a connection to racism, is the existence of implicit bias. Studies involving simulators have found that officers are more likely to use force against a black suspect than a white suspect. This has generally been explained in terms of officers having a negative bias in regards to blacks. What is rather interesting is that these studies show that even black and Hispanic officers are more likely to use force against black suspects. Also interesting is that studies have shown that civilians are more likely than officers to use force in the simulators and also show more bias in regards to race.

One reason why an implicit bias can lead to a use of force is that it impacts how a person perceives another’s actions and the perception of objects. When a person knows she is in a potentially dangerous situation, she is hyper vigilant for threats and is anticipating the possibility of attack. As such, a person’s movements and any object he is wielding will be seen through that “threat filter.”  So, for example, a person reaching rapidly to grab his wallet can easily be seen as grabbing for a weapon. Perceptual errors, of course, occur quite often—think of how people who are afraid of snakes often see every vine or stick as a snake when walking in the woods. These perceptual errors also help explain shootings—a person can honestly think they saw the suspect reaching for a weapon.

Since the main difference between the officers and the civilians is most likely the training police receive, it seems reasonable to conclude that the training is having a positive effect. However, the existence of a race disparity in the use of force does show that there is still a problem to address. One point of concern is that the bias might be so embedded in American culture that training will not eliminate it. That is, as long as there is racial bias in the society, it will also infect the police. As such, eliminating the bias in police would require eliminating it in society as a whole—which goes far beyond policing.

A second often mentioned factor is what some call the “warrior culture.” Visually, this is exemplified by the use of military equipment, such as armored personal carriers, by the police. However, the warrior culture is not primarily a matter of equipment, but of attitude. While police training does include conflict resolution skill training, there is a significant evidence on combat skills, especially firearms. On the one hand, this makes sense—people who are going to be using weapons need to be properly trained in their use. On the other hand, there are grounds for being concerned with the fact that there is more focus on combat training relative to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Since I have seen absurd and useless “training” in conflict resolution, I do get that there would be concerns about such training. I also understand that conflict resolution is often cast in terms of “holding hands and drinking chamomile tea together” and hence is not always appealing to people who are interested in police work. However, it does seem to be a critical skill. After all, in a crisis people fall back on habit and training—and if people are trained primarily for combat, they will fall back on that. Naturally, there is the worry that too much emphasis on conflict resolution could put officers in danger—so that they keep talking well past the point at which they should have started shooting. However, this is a practical matter of training that can be addressed. A critical part of conflict resolution training is also what Aristotle would regard as moral education: developing the character to know when and how to act correctly. As Aristotle said, it is easy to be angry but it is hard to be angry at the right time for the right reasons, towards the right people and to the right degree. As Aristotle also said, this is very hard and most people are rather bad at this sort of thing, including conflict resolution. This does present a challenge even for a well-trained officer—the person she is dealing with is probably horrible at conflict-resolution. One possible solution is training for citizens—not in terms of just rolling over for the police, but in interacting with the police (and each other). Expecting the full burden of conflict resolution to fall upon the police certainly seems unfair and also not a successful strategy.

The final factor I will consider is the principle of the primacy of officer survival. One of the primary goals of police training and practice is officer survival. It would, obviously, be absurd to claim that police should not be trained in survival or that police practices should not put an emphasis on the survival of officers.  However, there are legitimate concerns about ways of training officers, the practice of law enforcement and the attitude that training and practice create.

Part of the problem, as some see it, links to the warrior mentality. The police, it is claimed, are trained to regard their job as incredibly dangerous and policing as a form of combat mission. This, obviously enough, shapes the reaction of officers to situations they encounter, which ties into the matter of perceptual bias. If a person believes that she is going out into a combat zone, she will perceive people and actions through this “combat zone filter.” As such, people will be regarded as more threatening, actions will be more likely to be interpreted as hostile and objects will be more likely to be seen as weapons. As such, it certainly makes sense that approaching officer survival by regarding police work as a combat mission would result in more civilian causalities than would different approaches.

Naturally, it can be argued that officers do not, in general, have this sort of “combat zone” attitude and that academics are presenting the emphasis on survival in the wrong sort of light. It can also be argued that the “combat zone” attitude is real, but is also correct—people do, in fact, target police officers for attack and almost any situation could turn into a battle for survival.  As such, it would be morally irresponsible to not train officers for survival, to instill in them a proper sense of fear, and to engage in practices that focus primarily on officers making it home at the end of the shift—even if this approach results in more civilian deaths, including the deaths of unarmed civilians.

This leads to a rather important moral concern, namely the degree of risk a person is obligated to take in order to minimize the harm to another person. This matter is not just connected to the issue of the use of force by police, but also the broader issue of self-defense.

I do assume that there is a moral right to self-defense and that police officers do not lose this right when acting in their professional capacity. That is, a person has a right to harm another person when legitimately defending her life, liberty or property against an unwarranted attack. Even if such a right is accepted, there is still the question of the degree of force a person is justified in using and to what extent a person should limit her response in order to minimize harm to the attacker.

In terms of the degree of force, the easy and obvious answer is that the force should be proportional to the threat but should also suffice to end the threat. For example, when I was a boy I faced the usual attacks of other boys. Since these attacks just involved fists and grappling, a proportional response was to hit back hard enough to make the other boy stop. Grabbing a rock, a bat or pulling a knife would be disproportional. As another example, if someone is shooting at a police officer, then she would certainly be in the right to use her firearm since that would be a proportional response.

One practical and moral concern about the proportional response is that the attacker might escalate. For example, if Bob swings on Mary and she lands a solid punch to his face, he might pull out a knife and stab her. If Mary had simply shot Bob, she would have not been stabbed because Bob would be badly wounded or dead. As such, some would argue, the response to an attack should be disproportional. In terms of the moral justification, this would rest on the fact that the attacker is engaged in an unjust action and the person attacked has reason to think, as Locke argued, that the person might intend to kill her.

Another practical and moral concern is that if the victim “plays fair” by responding in a proportional manner, she risks losing the encounter. For example, if Bob swings on Sally and Sally sticks with her fists, Bob might be able to beat her. Since dealing with an attacker is not a sporting event, the idea of “fair play” seems absurd—hence the victim has the moral right to respond in a disproportional manner.

However, there is also the counter-concern that a disproportional response would be excessive in the sense of being unnecessary. For example, if Bob swings at Sally and Sally shoots him four times with a twelve gauge, Sally is now safe—but if Sally could have used a Taser to stop Bob, then the use of the shotgun would seem to be wrong—after all, she did not need to kill Bob in order to save herself. As such, it would seem reasonable to hold to the moral principle that the force should be sufficient for defense, but not excessive.

The obvious practical challenge is judging what would be sufficient and what would be excessive. Laws that address self-defense issues usually leave this very vague: a person can use deadly force when facing a “reasonable perceived threat.” That is, the person must have a reasonable belief that there is a threat—there is usually no requirement that the threat be real. To use the stock example, if a man points a realistic looking toy gun at an officer and says he is going to kill her, the officer would have a reasonable belief that there is a threat. Of course, there are problems with threat assessment—as noted above, implicit bias, warrior mentality and survival focus can cause a person to greatly overestimate a threat (or see one where it does not exist).

The challenge of judging sufficient force in response to a perceived threat is directly connected with the moral concern about the degree of risk a person is obligated to face in order to avoid (excessively) harming another person.  After all, a person could “best” ensure her safety by responding to every perceived threat with maximum lethal force. If she responds with less force or delays her response, then she is at ever increasing risk. If she accepts too little risk, she would be acting wrongly towards the person threatening her. If she accepts too much risk, she would be acting wrongly towards herself and anyone she is protecting.

A general and generic approach would be to model the obligation of risk on the proportional response approach. That is, the risk one is obligated to take is proportional to the situation at hand. This then leads to the problem of working out the details of the specific situation—which is to say that the degree of risk would seem to rest heavily on the circumstances.

However, there are general factors that would impact the degree of obligatory risk. One would be the relation between the people. For example, it seems reasonable to hold that people have greater obligations to accept risk to avoid harming people they love or care about. Another factor that seems relevant is the person’s profession. For example, soldiers are expected to take some risks to avoid killing civilians—even when doing so puts them in some danger. To use a specific example, soldiers on patrol could increase their chance of survival by killing any unidentified person (adult or child) that approaches them. However, being a soldier and not a killer requires the soldiers to accept some risk to avoid murdering innocents.

In the case of police officers it could be argued that their profession obligates them to take greater risks to avoid harming others. Since their professed duty is to serve and protect, it can be argued that the survival of those who they are supposed to protect should be given equal weight to that of the survival of the officer. That is, the focus should be on everyone going home. In terms of how this would be implemented, the usual practice would be training and changes to rules regarding use of force. Limiting officer use of force can be seen as generating greater risk for the officers, but the goal would be to reduce the harm done to civilians. Since the police are supposed to protect people, they are (it might be argued) under greater obligation to accept risk than civilians.

One obvious reply to this is that many officers already have this view—they take considerable risks to avoid harming people, even when they would be justified in using force. These officers save many lives—although sometimes at the cost of their own. Another reply is that this sort of view would get officers killed because they would be too concerned about not harming suspects and not concerned enough about their own survival. That is a reasonable concern—there is the challenge of balancing the safety of the public and the safety of officers.


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  1. “In all three experiments using a more externally valid research method than previous studies, we found that participants took longer to shoot Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects. In addition, where errors were made, participants across experiments were more likely to shoot unarmed White suspects than unarmed Black or Hispanic suspects, and were more likely to fail to shoot armed Black suspects than armed White or Hispanic suspects. In sum, this research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects in their decisions to shoot.”

  2. s. wallerstein

    In Chile a bit over a week ago during a student demonstration that was “getting out of hand”, a police water cannon was fired at a very short distance at a peaceful student marcher, knocking him over, his head hitting the pavement causing serious brain injuries that have him in critical condition with the risk of death.

    At first the police lied about what occurred, but after videos of the incident appeared in internet, the policeman involved was identified and dismissed from the police force.

    The event led to a justified public outcry about police brutality and so when another student demonstration was held last night, the police kept a prudent distance from the march.

    Result: looting, vandalism, all the traffic lights on Santiago’s main avenue broken, all the bus shelters (they protect public bus users in the rain, etc.) trashed, a historical church damaged.

    So we have a problem. If the police get too enthusiastic at repressing crowds, they are brutal and if they don’t, we have looting and vandalism.

    What’s the solution, if any? It’s hard to demand that police, in situations of chaos and danger (two policemen were burned with acid last night, not to mention rock throwing, etc.), behave with the philosophical calm of a graduate seminar on ethics. What’s more, if I may offer a very cynical observation, one of the functions of the police is to scare the shit out of those who need to have the shit scared out of them: sorry for the obscenity.

    On the other hand, people have a right to demonstrate and most demonstrators are peaceful. Once again, the boy now in critical conditon after being hit by the water cannon was peacefully demonstrating for the right to a free university education, a laudable cause in my opinion.

    I guess, as in so many issues, society is going to have to muddle through, trying to balance, without ever perfectly balancing, the duty of the police to maintain order and the right of demonstrators to speak out.

  3. Considering studies that show that the bias favors black is obviously critical. But, studies that show the opposite also need to be considered:
    Here is a collection of articles on the subject of bias:

    It would be a mistake to simply believe the study one likes, so thanks for bringing up that one study that runs counter to past results.

    One rather interesting point is that:

    The participants, 85 percent of whom were white, “demonstrated significantly greater threat responses against black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects,” wrote James and her co-authors, University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist David Klinger and WSU Spokane’s Bryan Vila. This, they said, suggests the participants “held subconscious biases associating blacks and threats,” which is consistent with previous psychological research on racial stereotypes.

    A possible explanation for the simulation results is that if the subjects knew they were being tested for implicit bias and if they were aware of the media coverage of shootings of unarmed black men, then they might have consciously changed their behavior. The research seems to show (in the above quote) that the bias is still present in the subconscious. This seems to point towards a conscious suppression of the bias. If so, this is actually good news: if the bias exists and can be consciously suppressed, then it would seem possible to train people to offset their biases. There is the concern that officers might be trained to be too reluctant to use force and this could endanger them and the public.

    What I would take away from the article is that the study shows that implicit bias is still present, but that the subjects were able to consciously suppress it during the simulations.

  4. That study is the most realistic simulation of shooting situations that has been done.

    The greater threat response to blacks is rational given that blacks are more likely to be a threat.

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