Stereotype Threat in Police Encounters: Implications for Miscarriages of Justice

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Photo: Glenn Halog

Imagine you’re walking down a city street on your way home for the night when you see a police officer exit a store ahead of you. Imagine the officer sees you, stops, and watches you as you approach. Imagine how you might feel in that situation. Now, consider whether your experience would be the same if your skin color was different.

Data from research I recently conducted with Bette Bottoms and Phillip Goff, published in Law and Human Behavior, suggest that the psychological experience of such police encounters is very different for Black as compared to White citizens. In one study, we asked men how they would feel and what they would be thinking in the hypothetical police encounter described above. The results were striking: 27 percent of Black men reported that they expected the officer to profile them as criminals whereas only 3 percent of White men did.

For instance, Black men responded that “I would feel like he suspects me of doing something because I’m Black”; “I would think that the officer is racially profiling me and is probably thinking that I stole one of the items in my bookbag”; and “Not surprised, because being Black people notice me at night, as if I’m a criminal.” We also found that Black men were more likely than White men to expect the police officer would eventually accuse them of wrongdoing.

Our findings provide strong, though preliminary, evidence that Blacks and Whites have different psychological experiences of police encounters, and suggest that these differences could set the stage for Blacks to suffer more miscarriages of justice than Whites.

To understand why Black and White men tend to perceive interactions with the police so differently, my colleagues and I looked to social psychological theory on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the concern one has of being perceived in light of a negative stereotype about one’s social group. It has been studied extensively in relation to the Black–White academic achievement gap, but ours is the first set of studies to explore whether stereotype threat also creates racial differences in the experience of criminal justice encounters. Our results confirmed that Blacks are significantly more likely than Whites to be concerned that police will stereotype them as criminals simply because of their race. Moreover, the more Black men anticipate feeling this threat, the more likely they are to expect the police to profile them as criminals and accuse them of misconduct.

Our findings provide strong, though preliminary, evidence that Blacks and Whites have different psychological experiences of police encounters, and suggest that these differences could set the stage for Blacks to suffer more miscarriages of justice than Whites.

First, stereotype threat could cause police to misclassify more innocent Blacks than Whites as suspects. In the study described above, we also found the more Black men reported being concerned that the hypothetical police officer would stereotype them as criminals on the basis of their race, the more likely they were to anticipate they would monitor their behavior and search for evidence that they were being stereotyped—be self-conscious about how they were acting or wonder what the police officer thought of them. Of importance, this translated into Black men anticipating that they would freeze up, look nervous, try to avoid looking nervous, or avoid making eye contact during the encounter. This pattern did not hold for White men.

This is concerning because police commonly perceive these behaviors as deceptive and suspicious looking. For example, 52 percent of street stops made by New York Police Department officers in 2012 were initiated because of citizens’ “furtive movements,” and such behavior was used to justify stops disproportionately more often when citizens were Black rather than White. This pattern of racially disparate treatment was the subject of a federal class action lawsuit against New York City, which was deemed to have violated citizens’ constitutional rights to protection against unreasonable search and seizure and equal protection under the law.

Once in the system, it is also likely that Blacks experience stereotype threat in front of other decision makers, such as judges, juries, and parole boards. These and many other possibilities demand further empirical inquiry.

Although our studies are the first to suggest that stereotype threat could contribute to wrongful stops, we assessed differences only in how Black and Whites expected to feel and behave in hypothetical police encounters. The next steps are to test whether racial differences in psychological experiences occur under more realistic circumstances, such as a simulated or actual police encounters, and whether innocent Blacks who experience stereotype threat are actually at increased risk of being erroneously stopped by police.

More research is also needed to determine whether stereotype threat leads to even further injustices for innocent Black citizens who are stopped by the police. For instance, because individuals who are concerned about being stereotyped as criminals may have altered beliefs about how to act in that situation, they may feel more under the control of police officers and less able to assert their freedom in police encounters. This could potentially cause Blacks to be less likely than Whites to walk away from a police officer, decline his or her requests, or otherwise end the encounter. Moreover, innocent Blacks who perceive they are being treated as suspects might react with defensiveness, antagonism, or hostility, both emotionally and behaviorally. This could explain why Blacks are more likely than Whites to be characterized by police as having a negative demeanor, and it has important implications because individuals are more likely to be arrested if they have a negative rather than positive demeanor. Once in the system, it is also likely that Blacks experience stereotype threat in front of other decision makers, such as judges, juries, and parole boards. These and many other possibilities demand further empirical inquiry.

In the context of relations between police and communities of color in our nation, it is unsurprising that Black citizens may feel in danger of being stereotyped as criminals by police. In fact, concerns about physical safety and experiencing bias are probably intricately entangled given the recent attention to police use of excessive and deadly force against unarmed Black men, women, boys, and girls. However, amidst the alarms being sounded about such events, it is also important to focus on the ways in which stereotypes contribute to racial disproportionalities in wrongful stops, searches, arrests, and convictions, and to recognize their devastating consequences. The resulting lost and blocked opportunities may contribute to racial disparities in social and economic achievement. Also, it is important to consider how other social identities—Hispanic and Muslim, for instance—may be stereotyped as criminals and similarly impacted.

Understanding why miscarriages of justice occur and taking steps to eliminate them is of paramount importance if we wish to improve racial equity and social justice. Our results suggest that research into the racially disparate psychological experiences of criminal justice encounters is a productive avenue for achieving this goal. In particular, police should be educated about this issue, and trained that normal psychological processes can produce behaviors that are typically associated with criminality. Also, because efforts to diversify police forces and strengthen police-community relations may increase expectations that police will be fair and just, they may be integral to attenuating Blacks’ experiences of stereotype threat in police encounters.

CNajdowskiCynthia Najdowski is an Assistant Professor at the University at Albany. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012. She conducts research on psychological issues that arise when disadvantaged and vulnerable populations interact with the criminal justice system. In addition to studying social psychological factors that contribute to racial disparities in the system, she also studies perceptions of juvenile offenders and the public policies that affect them and social influences on the experiences of sexual assault victims. Her work has been recognized with several nationally competitive grants and awards.

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