Black people are much more vulnerable to police misconduct than whites and, the majorities of both Black and white Americans say Black people are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police. There are countless examples of cell phone videos and police body camera footage of Black individuals being the victim of excessive force at the hands of police officers. Furthermore, Black people, who account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 27 percent of those fatally shot and killed by police in 2021.
Bias in policing refers to any prejudice or unequal treatment that is experienced by individuals or groups within a law enforcement system. Bias can be conscious or unconscious and can be based on factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socioeconomic status. Bias in policing can take many forms, including discriminatory stops, searches, unnecessary physical force, and arrests. There is also unequal treatment during booking, processing, and sentencing.
Racial tensions are directly woven into the history of American policing and continue to undermine the oath of protection and service. The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri brought allegations of racial bias to the forefront of the national conversation about police legitimacy, and the 2023 murder of Tyre Nichols is a brutal reminder that inequities in policing still exist. While disparities in policing reflect racialized policies of inequity, negative bias against Black Americans is also an ever-present force influencing police misconduct.
Research has shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected by bias in policing, with higher rates of arrest and conviction than their white counterparts. This can lead to a sense of distrust and alienation between these communities and the police, further perpetuating a cycle of bias and inequality.
In an original piece entitled “More Black than Blue? Comparing the Racial Attitudes of Police to Citizens” (Lecount, 2017), authors suggest that white police are more racially resentful, more likely to see Blacks as violent, and more likely to minimize anti-Black discrimination than are white non-police. These implicit associations have clearly manifested in the massive disparity we see in policing and the inhumane violence enacted towards Black and Brown citizens. Furthermore, data suggests that officers of all races exhibit consistently higher levels of bias than members of the public overall, and compared to other members of their own racial groups (Xu, 2014). Police bias of any type is consequential for the citizens they serve.
If we intend to end police brutality against Black people, the police must be trained to mitigate the effects of their own racial biases with ongoing exercises that challenge officers to confront those biases. The mistreatment of Black people appears to be embedded within the organizational culture of policing. Training programs must focus not only on changing officers’ individual biases, but transforming shared beliefs about race. This can only be accomplished when racial bias awareness is considered a fundamental component of police training and professional development. As we become more aware of bias, we can then recognize how widespread and invasive it is in our society and even within ourselves. But, with that recognition, we must also note that bias is malleable and efforts must be taken to try and build a future without bias.