The World Is Not Black and White: Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot in a Multiethnic Context


  • This work was supported by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation. The authors wish to thank the police officers who took part in the study and Calibre Press whose cooperation was integral to completing the research. They also thank Kyle Jensen and Christopher Blankenship for their tireless effort and assistance in the research.

Melody S. Sadler, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182 [e-mail:].


We examined implicit race biases in the decision to shoot potentially hostile targets in a multiethnic context. Results of two studies showed that college-aged participants and police officers showed anti-Black racial bias in their response times: they were quicker to correctly shoot armed Black targets and to indicate “don't shoot” for unarmed Latino, Asian, and White targets. In addition, police officers showed racial biases in response times toward Latinos versus Asians or Whites, and surprisingly, toward Whites versus Asians. Results also showed that the accuracy of decisions to shoot was higher for Black and Latino targets than for White and Asian targets. Finally, the degree of bias shown by police officers toward Blacks was related to contact, attitudes, and stereotypes. Overestimation of community violent crime correlated with greater bias toward Latinos but less toward Whites. Implications for police training to ameliorate biases are discussed.