Ferguson

Why Police Officers Keep Claiming Their Unarmed Victims Had Guns, and What We Can Do About It

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Police officers keep claiming that they genuinely thought their unarmed victims had lethal weapons. Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, claims in his grand jury testimony that Brown put his right hand "under his shirt in his waistband" and then lunged at him—153 feet away. Yet Michael Brown did not have a gun. Instead he was shot 7 times, with the last shot being lethal.

Just last Monday, Ohio police officers shot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old African-American child, because they thought his fake "airsoft"-type pellet gun was an actual gun. In August, Ohio police officers gunned down an unarmed African-American customer in a Wal-mart talking on his cell phone who had picked up a pellet gun, out of its package, that was sitting on the shelf. The special prosecutor, who argued the case in front of a grand jury who did not indict any police officer, tried to explain at a later press conference:

"The law says police officers are judged by what is in their mind at the time…You have to put yourself in their shoes at that time with the information they had."

||| Keith Payne 2001
Keith Payne 2001

Academic research, however, tells us that more than a police officer's conscious intentions may influence their judgments and actions. University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Payne (2001) conducted an experiment finding research participants were more likely to mis-identify a hand tool as a gun when they had to respond quickly, immediately after being shown the face of an African-American male rather than a Caucasian male. Particularly, white and male respondents were faster to identify guns when "primed" with a black face versus a white face.

This suggests that police officers like Daren Wilson may have genuinely believed their lives were threatened, and acted accordingly—but that their conclusions were unduly and implicitly influenced by their own stereotypes.

But there is hope. Payne also found that an individual's personal desire to overcome prejudice—to not feel it or express it—moderated the effect of racial bias on categorizing tools or guns. For instance, those who were more likely to agree with statements like, "I get angry with myself when I have a thought or feeling that might be considered prejudiced," or "It's never acceptable to express one's prejudices" were significantly less likely to implicitly allow their own stereotypes to influence their performance in the experiment.

||| Keith Payne 2001
Keith Payne 2001

This chart is probably one of the most hopeful findings of social science research: we as individuals can make choices that reduce the effect of prejudices or stereotypes we may hold. The horizontal axis of the chart measures an individual's implicit racial prejudices and the vertical axis essentially measures the effect of racial bias exhibited during the experiment. The three plotted lines represent different levels of desire to suppress one's prejudices. The solid black line shows that among those who had high desire to overcome their prejudice, their implicit racial stereotypes did not affect their experiment performance. However, the small dotted line shows that for those who cared little about their own prejudice, their racial stereotypes significantly and substantially affected their behavior in the experiment.

This chart quickly summed up is this: One's personal desire to overcome prejudice can significantly and meaningfully moderate the effect of subconscious stereotypes and the (perhaps unintended) harms they may cause.

This has implications for society generally and also law enforcement specifically. Police officers are often in situations where they must make quick judgments in a stressful environment. Payne's research suggests that even police officers intending to be fair may allow their subconscious stereotypes to influence their judgments unless they make a concerted effort to care about overcoming such prejudices.

(Charts from B. Keith Payne. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(2), 181-192. Figure 3 legend and vertical axis label revised for reader clarity.)

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  1. Prejudice is not the same as bigotry. Stereotyping is not the same thing as racism.

    1. Pedantry isn’t the same thing as nit picking.

      1. Rationality isn’t the same as pedantry.

        1. Mayo isn’t the same as Miracle Whip….wait, what were we talking about…?

          1. I’m not your buddy, friend!

            1. I’m not your friend, guy!

              1. I’m not your guy Buddy!

            2. “Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue…that we couldn’t resist it.” – John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale of the War on Drugs.

          2. “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved….”

            This was someone, who in a rare moment of honesty and clarity, illustrated the rational idea of using probability to make a judgement in the absence of full information. He spent quite a bit of effort walking it back after the inevitable uproar. I would have added, “Older and black” or “Professionally dressed and black” to the “relieved” part, but still. I would also add that if it were some cops, I’d feel the same fear that I would feel if it were a group of young black males in low pants and hoodies doing the pimp roll. Sure, they may be math honor students, but I can’t know that.

            This is stereotyping for sure. It’s prejudice, for sure. It is not racism. It is not bigotry.

            1. And so the cop in question looks at Brown,amd sees a thug, which is reasonable enough because Brown WAS a thug. Trayvon Martin was a thug. The cops in the two Ohio cases saw so,eone with something that was made to look like a gun.

              Are the cops all Brave Men In Blue ™’ always worthy of our support? Oh, hell, no. But this article has chosen some damn poor examples for its apparent premise that cops are prone to make bad choices.

      2. Pedantry isn’t the same thing as nit picking

        Who brought Bo into this?

  2. “The law says police officers are judged by what is in their mind at the time

    This is why the police are always guilty of nothing.

    1. Right – “I was in fear for my life” = avoid accountability, no matter how absurd the assertion.

      1. The police all know the magic words that will absolve them of responsibility.

  3. Police officers are often in situations where they must make quick judgments in a stressful environment.

    Hold them accountable when they make wrong judgments and they might start making right ones.

    1. Note the same standard does not apply when cops are bursting into your house at 3:00 AM and you try to defend yourself from the violent home invaders.

      1. In that case you brought the stress on yourself.

        /copsucker

        1. By choosing to live at an address similar to one where a drug dealer may have possibly once lived according to a confidential informant trading for leniency.

          1. Wow, it’s almost like this is a common occurrence!

          2. Ignorance is no excuse, buddy. No excuse at all.

            1. Don’t call me buddy, pal.

              1. Do not call me your Personal. Ass. Liker.
                buddy!

        2. Yeah, you should have known better than to live in a neighborhood where you might get a wrong-door raid because an ‘informant’ wanted to cut a deal and picked a random address. You should have known you might be shooting at the cops.
          smooches
          hth
          /dumbfy

          1. This is actually tame compared to some arguments he’s made.

            1. Like come to the door of your own home when, unannounced and unidentified, the cops are pounding on it at 1:30 am and they can just shoot you dead, no worries for them?

    2. I’d be happy if we started that with even low-level bureaucrats.

    3. Hold them accountable when they make wrong judgments and they might start making right ones.

      It doesn’t even have to be criminal accountability. If there was just a general rule that use of lethal force would result in immediate termination, 90% of this shit would stop. Cops who were literally put in a life or death situation could choose between their job or their life, and the trigger happy assholes would either quickly exclude themselves from the job or learn to be a little less quick on the draw.

    4. It’s simple enough. Charge the cops $1000 for every bullet they fire. If they’re in real danger, hell, $1000? $5000. Who cares?

      And let them go before a citizen’s board where they can argue for a refund. That is, if someone really was trying to kill them, full refund. But if they don’t prove their case…

  4. “Michael Brown, claims in his grand jury testimony that Brown put his right hand “under his shirt in his waistband””

    I have seen this very thing right in front of the house. Cops hava a guy in a car pulled over. Another guy approaches the cop and the car and while doing so, puts his hand in his pants pocket. Cop tells him to take his hand out of his pocket. Guy keeps hand in pocket and continues waliking towards the cop and car. Cop puts his hand on his holstered weapon. Guy removes hand from pocket. It’s a fucking game.

    1. So you’re saying the cops know that there’s nothing in their pants?

  5. white and male respondents were faster to identify guns when “primed” with a black fact

    Jeez, even facts are racist now.

  6. Why Police Officers Keep Claiming Their Unarmed Victims Had Guns, and What We Can Do About It

    Why? Because they are professional liars. That’s why.

    Maybe if they were held accountable when their reports are full of lies by omission, exaggeration, and outright fabrication, then perhaps they might tell the truth for once. As it is, they just lie about everything because they can.

  7. Training.

    They are trained to be on the lookout for guns and respond instantly with deadly force. Train them to be respond with a warning, to confirm they see a real gun, and only then use the minimal force needed.

    Far fewer civilians will get killed, and yes, a few more cops will probably die.

    1. We can’t let the lower castes win!

    2. While we’re dreaming big, how about getting them to stop thinking that gun equals threat while we’re at it? Simply having a gun on one’s person should not be grounds for execution.

      1. That would require different training. I seriously think that liberal gun-fear / hate has infected police training.

        Soldiers and Marines would be charged with murder if they simply executed anyone with a gun in an occupied area.

        1. You’re onto something. I think it says a lot you tend not to get these incidents so much in rural areas with sheriff’s deputies who grew up around guns but you do get a ton of them in urban areas with de facto gun bans. The anti-gun paranoia drilled into your average NYPD officer from just growing up in NYC makes an officer who would shoot dozens of people when presented with a normal deer season scene in a rural PA town.

      2. While I write this, I’m having lunch in a restaurant, carrying a gun. If another patron has spotted that gun under my shirt, and the cops are on their way over, I am eligible for the death sentence, according to some. The following facts would be in play:

        1 officer has received a report of someone with a gun.

        2. The gun on my person not only looks real, but is real.

        3. It is loaded.

        If other facts came into play, such as me wearing headphones and not hearing his initial command, I might reach to my waistband unaware of the situation unfolding. I am now “not complying”.

        If I was shot dead, it would likely be justified, because I am in fact armed, and I didn’t comply with officers commands, and I made a reach.

        1. Your gun should be concealed, right?

          You would have to brandish it around in open public for someone to actually contact the police.

          1. Screw that.

            This nation has become so pussified that what was once standard is now cause for murder-by-cop.

            Close to half of all states allow open carry without a permit. (The other half have gone communist.) “Man with a gun” calls should be ignored unless the “man with a gun” is doing something wrong.

        2. It’s absolutely sick that there are people who have no problem causing the imprisonment or death of peaceful people simply for carrying a weapon for self-defense. These same people have no problem with the militarization of police, but lose their minds over the idea of people carrying pocket knives.

          1. And they don’t get that they are the same as the religious fundies who freak seeing two men hold hands in public.

        3. Then you better make damn sure no one sees it.

    3. If a hundred innocent civilians have to die to save one cop, or just make cops feel safer, they can live with that. And this is what you get when an elite force is given a moral pass (benefit of the doubt). Held to a very low or no threshold of accountability, cops rape, murder, steal, and do what they want.

      This is what you get when you sacrifice rights for security… NEITHER.

      1. I wouldn’t call the vast majority of cops “elite.”

  8. they’ll pervert any process. how about a hard limit of one and done?

    1. Then I would expect a sharp rise in “plants”.

      1. not a limit of one innocent/unarmed killed. a limit of one kill period. like we both said, they’ll pervert any process.

        1. I think the point is that they would all try to kill someone so they could go on to early retirement as soon as possible.

  9. “The law says police officers are judged by what is in their mind at the time?You have to put yourself in their shoes at that time with the information they had.”

    Let’s say we decide to leave that standard in place – as a standard for criminal charges.

    How could that possibly be the standard for employment?

    In other words – maybe you should avoid criminal liability if you can’t tell when someone really has a gun, and shoot an unarmed person by mistake.

    But how the fuck can you continue to be employed?

    The ability to accurately discern when deadly force is required and when it’s not should be a baseline requirement for employment as a police officer. When you fail to do that, you should be fired.

    Otherwise, the worse you are at making decisions, the more free you are to shoot at people. The cop most free to shoot at people would be a blind, retarded cop. He could always “reasonably” declare that “based on what he thought he knew at the time” he had to shoot.

    1. But how the fuck can you continue to be employed?

      Police unions, contract clauses that would make you vomit in rage.

    2. It’s amazing what a common person has to worry about vs a government employee in terms of what will get them fired. I can be (justifiably) fired for botching one spreadsheet that fucks up one deal, but cops can fucking kill people without really fearing for their livelihoods.

      1. You have to keep in mind, your employer values a deal more than a cop’s employer values a peon’s life.

  10. Why is “thought he had a gun” conceived as the problem? In most of the cases discussed, even if the person in question had had a real gun, that person should not have been shot.

    What goes on in cases like this in other countries, is what I’d like to know, and what I’m not seeing reported on. What went on in this country in past times, also something I’d like to know.

    1. Are you being coy? Countries where people are not allowed to be armed have the same policy, e.g., kill the armed citizen on sight. U.S. citizens have been deprived of their gun/defense right by a de facto cop policy of kill the gun bearer. Would you feel comfortable having a gun with cops around? They scare me plenty when I’m unarmed, armed I would be at an even greater risk. I don’t call 911. I would rather deal with the private criminal than the one who can kill me without risk.

      1. No, I’m not being coy. Do they have that policy? Are you sure?

        More generally, I wanted to know how common the problem is of cops killing people, regardless of circumstances, either in other countries now, or this country in the past. Or, for that matter, other countries in the past. I’m trying to get an idea of how peculiar this problem is.

        1. “In the past five years, more Utahns have been killed by police than by gang members.

          Or drug dealers. Or from child abuse.

          And so far this year, deadly force by police has claimed more lives ? 13, including a Saturday shooting in South Jordan ? than has violence between spouses and dating partners.”

          Read it yourself.

          http://www.sltrib.com/news/184…..fullpage=1

          1. That still doesn’t tell me whether it’s greater than it’s been at other times in the same place, or in other places at the same time.

    2. What goes on in cases like this in other countries, is what I’d like to know, and what I’m not seeing reported on.

      What goes on in other countries is that kids are taught starting in elementary school to obey police without question. In many countries, merely using disrespectful language with police is enough to get fined or worse.

      Whether that’s preferable is debatable, but when people implicitly obey police, it tends to cut down on the amount of police violence.

      1. I would think the causality would be vice versa: that when police are violent, and that fact is widely known, people tend to obey them more. Therefore if police violence is a problem peculiar to here & now, one would expect people to be more obedient to police here & now, to save their lives, provided they know that police are violent. So if this is a problem peculiar to here & now, I could see there being 2 possible reasons: police are newly violent, or news of police violence has been suppressed. Otherwise people would’ve adjusted.

        Another possibility is that this phenomenon is a publicity flap, and not in fact peculiar to here & now.

        1. To an extent, people will more readily obey a threatening authority figure.

          Beyond a point, they give them the Mussolini treatment.

    3. I could see a couple of remedies. One would be to make gun carriage so widespread that it would be a matter of course rather than a reason to shoot. The other would be exactly the opposite, making gun carriage so rare that there’s no reason to shoot in doubtful cases because it’s so extremely unlikely the person’s carrying a gun.

  11. Why shouldn’t we apply the same standard as anyone else who carries a firearm in public legally (SLD: This should be everyone). You know, actually indicting people for capital or second degree murder and convicting many but not all. Also, as Fluffy says, seeing some convicted of civil penalties under preponderance of the evidence.

  12. Based on this, are cops not subject to the objective “reasonable person” standard that the rest of us are? Are they truly judged on a subjective standard of belief? If so, it’s clearly impossible to ever indict an officer, no matter how egregious the crime.

  13. Reason can’t seem to admit that this is (more or less) a sequel to the Trayvon Martin case, and instead works hard to go on tangents to criticize the police. Their defense of a wannabe cop was vigorous and thorough. On Wilson, they sigh and say “Well, the evidence is there for him, so I guess we have to go with that.”

    Reason will also be complete in their opposition to using unarmed drones (or even a public camera installed in some places) to scope out a situation from afar, even though such measures will work better in many practical ways than an officer trying to tweak his prejudice or something.

    1. Something something liberty something something security something something neither.

    2. Trayvon Martin was a righteous kill and an overall benefit to society.

      Eliminating Michael Brown might also be a net good to society – but there’s enough question that I believe the case should have gone to trial.

      Don’t know where Reason got this: “Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, claims in his grand jury testimony that Brown put his right hand “under his shirt in his waistband” and then lunged at him?153 feet away.” Anyone know?

      1. Brown had to hold up his pants in order to charge Wilson.

      2. I absolutely agree that police officers resort to violence as a matter of course, and use the “I saw him reach for a gun” defense as a get out of jail free card, regardless of whether the victim was armed.

        However, the author here is being dishonest, intentionally I think. Darren Wilson testified to shooting when Brown charged him from 25 feet away, after he got out of his car and pursued him. Investigators measured the distance from the front wheel of Wilson’s vehicle to the body at 153 feet. You have to be a liar or fucking stupid to write what the author did.

      3. Trayvon Martin was a righteous kill and an overall benefit to society.

        That’ll teach him to go to the store to buy a bottle of iced tea.

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  15. Just last Monday, Ohio police officers shot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old African-American child, because they thought his fake “airsoft”-type pellet gun was an actual gun.

    A pellet gun looked exactly like an actual gun because it had the orange safety tab removed. A pellet gun that the kid was reaching for when the police told him to stop.

    Sorry, but I don’t see where the cops reacted incorrectly in that situation based on the information they had. Your other examples are legitimate…that one is just second-guessing based on ignoring the context of the incident.

    1. I think the cops need better training in these situations. They need to do a better job of putting themselves in a position where they can’t be hurt and then talking to the supposed perp.

      There was that case where an elderly man (black I think) called in an attempted burglary of his car. He was rummaging in the car when the cops arrived. They told him to get out. He didn’t immediately respond or tried to get out and when he turned was immediately shot.

      Why didn’t the cops put the car between the guy and them and let the guy know they had the drop on him and talk to him until they knew what was going on?

      1. Agreed. Well-trained police assess the situation prior to letting off rounds. Poorly trained or cowardly officers shoot first and ask questions later…and those need to be re-trained or fired, respectively.

        Police work is always going to involve some level of assumed risk, if it’s done properly. What I also see with these kind of shootings is that the police officers believe it’s only the public that should be forced to accept those risks in interacting with police…that’s a problem with training, but also with leadership in police forces.

        Caveat: I’m painting this with a broad brush, because these issues certainly aren’t uniform across every single police department. There are good ones and bad ones.

    2. Then why wasn’t it a problem before toy guns had orange tips?

      1. Because most toy guns looked like 19th century revolvers instead of Glocks and the kid was wearing a cowboy hat.

        It’s unfortunate the kid got shot, but given the circumstances, it was not unreasonable for the officer to assume the gun was real.

    3. The saddest thing I think when I hear this case is this:

      I wonder if the poor kid thought the cop was gonna play cops and robbers with him. So he decided to play along and go for the toy gun. And, for that, he’s dead.

      We should probably start telling kids at an early age that they’d better do everything a cop tells them to do immediately, and if the cop has any reason to believe he’s threatened, he may just kill you. And everyone will think the cop was right in doing so, in a manner totally different than if it happened to them or someone they loved.

      1. That’s what my folks always taught me. The instant a police officer puts his hand on his weapon, you do exactly what he says because he’s not screwing around.

        It doesn’t mean the officer is right…it just means that the situation has escalated, the officer sees you as a threat, and you need to stop so you don’t get hurt. Right and wrong can get sorted out after everyone has cooled down.

  16. What items of clothing was Michael Brown wearing?
    We know he had a red cap, and yellow socks – was he wearing a belt?
    IIRC the testimony about his reaching under his shirt was while he was charging Wilson the first time.
    Could he have been attempting to do something as simple as holding up his pants?
    Michael Nutter, call your office!

  17. The police are govt. employees. As such, they serve the govt., and themselves. They answer to the govt., not the people. The govt. is supposed to answer to the people, but that is goal that has never been achieved. No mechanism has worked. Democracy does not deliver the goods. It has failed everywhere. Politicians lie routinely. So do bureaucrats. Neither serve the public. But no effective accountability has been found. A few rare exceptions are advertised as if they were proof of a viable system. They are only proof for those indoctrinated to have faith in the illusion that govt. is beneficial.

    The system is not broken. It never worked. Democracy and a republican form of govt. were both sold as solutions for a civil society. The Founding Fathers called the system they created an experiment. They told us we had to monitor it and judge the wisdom of retaining it. We failed to do our job. The tyranny we live under is our fault. We deserve to suffer.

    The riots are blind rage against the system most hate and fear, but few know how to fix. Any attempt to fix it is stopped by the elite who benefit and control the media, the schools, and the wealth. We are repeating the past mistakes that brought down all civilizations/empires.

    The American experiment had a unique goal of individual sovereignty. Its means failed to achieve the end. We need to start over with a fundamental change in our social/political system. The world watches us. If we succeed, it will follow.

    1. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

      As much as our system is broken, it could be a lot worse. The prevailing attitude today is not liberty. It’s freedom. Freedom from want. Freedom from having to worry about paying for basic needs like a place to live, something to wear, something to eat, an education, a cellular phone, cable, internet…

      “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
      Bastiat (1850)

      No system will ever work unless human nature changes, and changing anytime soon.

    2. The police are govt. employees. As such, they serve the govt., and themselves.

      You’re mixing up multiple levels of government. Local government is little different from a gated community. You don’t like the police in your local town? Move away, simple as that.

      The tyranny we live under is our fault. We deserve to suffer.

      You are a whiny idiot who has never experienced true tyranny.

      1. Move away, simple as that.

        Easier said than done. Especially if you own your home, have a professional job, kids in the local school…

        1. Renting before buying is too complicated a concept? Moving one town over too much trouble?

      2. You’re still subject to a different government. How does moving to a different government’s jurisdiction solve the problem of government?

  18. but that their conclusions were unduly and implicitly influenced by their own stereotypes … One’s personal desire to overcome prejudice can significantly and meaningfully moderate the effect of subconscious stereotypes and the (perhaps unintended) harms they may cause.

    Given that homicide rates among young African American males are, in fact, more than ten times higher than among non-Hispanic whites, I think their conclusions are actually duly and explicitly influenced by reality. Pretending that racial differences in policing are based on irrational “prejudice” isn’t going to result in meaningful reform when police know the statistics. Whatever police and legal reforms people want to institute, they need to start with actual facts if they are supposed to be effective.

  19. So, is it prejudice when on a purely factual basis, 13% of the population commits 51% of all homicides?

    Is ti prejudice to think that a lion might be more dangerous than a poodle?

    Not knowing what the actual numbers are, if it’s 5times more likely for a black to shoot a cop, is it prejudice to be more inclined to see blacks as more threatening (because, in fact, they are)?

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  21. This is an invalid argument. First off, Wilson didn’t shoot Brown because he thought he had a gun. This guy seems to be clueless as to the circumstances. As for a tendency for police officers to assume a Black more likely than a white to be a deadly threat, I suggest the writer of this white slander examine the crime rate of whites versus blacks and explain why any intelligent person would ever believe a white would present the same likely danger as a black of committing a violent crime. The writer has actually demonstrated a high degree of racism in assuming the opposite. I doubt that this fellow understands this, however.

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  23. What a load of BS.
    Has it occurred to you that the bias is based on personal experience.
    When blacks make up a huge portion of violent perpetrators, go figure that anyone would see them as more likely to be violent perpetrators DUH!

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