A Philosopher's Blog

Shoot or Don’t Shoot?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2015

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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15 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on May 29, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Mike, here is a mistake you have made twice. Studies have shown that police are *less* likely to shoot blacks. I have pointed this out before, but evidently you refuse to believe it.


    • WTP said, on May 29, 2015 at 9:25 am

      Hey TJ, apropos of nothing, I see the word “obvious” or “obviously” was used 5 times in just this piece, and 42 times on the several articles displayed on the main blog page. Do you find that interesting? I do. Do you suppose there’s some correlation to “obvious”-ness and obtuseness? I do.

      • WTP said, on May 29, 2015 at 9:49 am

        Loooong SVN checkout process has me bored. So let me share my back-of-the-envelope research on this matter…Going back to last year, the use of “obvious” was in the neighborhood of 20-30 times per page (thus 2-3 times per post, assuming the average is 10 posts per page, which I only spot-verified but I think we can assume it as reliable). Recently, starting some time this year or late last year, the LaBossiere Obvious Index (here after to be referred to as the LOI) jumped into the 30’s and 40’s per page. Curious if anyone has a theory on this statistical peculiarity. First thought I had was Global Warming, but that’s rather simple minded and a bit too obvious.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 29, 2015 at 10:48 am

      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: http://www.fairimpartialpolicing.com/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 in the article you link to is 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.

      • WTP said, on May 29, 2015 at 11:28 am

        The research seems to show (in the above quote) that the bias is still present in the subconscious.

        Has there been a study of the bias present in the subconscious of community activists, the news media, the academics (e.g. philosophers)? After all (heh), the cop has to make a split second life-or-death decision. The media, et al have time to reflect on the facts of the situation in hindsight, long after the fact, and they STILL get it wrong. Where is that study?

        Still looking for the article on the bias present in the reporting and philosophizing in the Trevon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and now Baltimore. Some of this bias has inflamed passions that led to the execution of several police officers, the public celebration of such, and the attempted assassination of George Zimmerman. Still looking for discussion of the blatant bias of the prosecutor in the Baltimore situation. Still looking. Obviously.

      • TJB said, on May 29, 2015 at 12:49 pm

        Not all studies are equal. This one claims to be superior to earlier studies. Generally, as in this case, newer studies are designed to supersede earlier studies.

        “Other, less realistic studies have found people are more willing to think a black person has a gun instead of a tool and will more readily push a “shoot” button against a potentially armed black person.”

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 29, 2015 at 3:43 pm

          if the study is superior to earlier studies, then it would certainly be the one to accept-at least until a superior study comes along.

          The findings do make sense. As the study noted, people still seemed to have subconscious bias yet were able to consciously override it. This could be seen in two ways. One is that the study was biased-if people know they are being tested for bias and are aware of public opinion on the matter, then they will work harder to control that bias. As such, it won’t tell us how people might act in the field. To use an analogy, if people are told they are in a study to see if they are sexist or not, they might change their behavior for the study and revert when “in the wild.”

          The other is that people are still biased, but can consciously override this, thus pointing to the possibility of training away bias. It could, of course, be both.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 29, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    I think you’re mistaken when you say: “soldiers are expected to take some risks to avoid killing civilians—even when doing so puts them in some danger”. When I was a soldier, I was never told I was expected to take some risks in order to avoid killing civilians. I was told it was not lawful to intentionally kill unarmed civilians, and that I was required to disobey any order given by a superior to do so. A soldier killing civilians by mistake, in the course of protecting himself and his buddies, is an unfortunate accident (and cost) of war. It is not murder.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2015 at 3:33 pm

      I could certainly be wrong. But, for example, the injunction against killing unarmed civilians does put soldiers at some risk. For example, terrorists do pose as unarmed civilians to get close with car or vest bombs. Simply shooting anyone who gets close, could be safer.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 1, 2015 at 11:03 pm

        That’s what our soldiers have been doing professor… shooting civilians who get too close, because they’re considered a threat to themselves and their buddies. Why do you think so many of them are killing themselves when they get back to the real world? “It’s a common occurrence in Iraq: A car speeds toward an American checkpoint or foot patrol. They fire warning shots; the car keeps coming. Soldiers then shoot at the car. Sometimes the on-comer is a foiled suicide attacker, but other times, it’s an unarmed family.” (What Iraq’s checkpoints are like: http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0307/p01s04-woiq.html). Many cops are in the military and many spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they return to the real world they have a soldier’s perspective: Protect yourself and your buddies. Civilians are the enemy. Don’t take any risks. Shoot first and ask questions later.

  3. nailheadtom said, on May 30, 2015 at 8:32 am

    According to USA Today:

    “The primary cause for officer fatalities this year was traffic-related incidents, which claimed 46 lives.

    Firearms-related incidents accounted for 33 deaths, a drop of one-third over 2012 and the lowest since 1887 when 27 officers were shot to death, the NLEOMF reports.

    Thirty-two officers died of other causes in 2013, including 14 who suffered heart attacks while on duty.”

    On the other hand, 571 construction workers were killed on the job in 2013. I didn’t bother to look up the number of job-related fatalities in the college professor industry.

    Cops spend most of their duty hours cruising around in high-powered automobiles while searching their computers for information on attractive women, http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2012/12/anne-marie-rasmussen-update.html, chatting on their cell phones with other men’s wives, eating gratis doughnuts and smoking. Naturally these distractions can cause car accidents which could involve fatalities.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2015 at 3:38 pm

      Not surprising-driving is dangerous and distracted driving is wicked dangerous.

      Professors are only rarely killed on the job-it has happened, of course.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on May 30, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Mike, the study you refer to:

    “Studies involving simulators have found that officers are more likely to use force against a black suspect than a white suspect.”

    actually tested undergraduates, not police officers:

    Social science research shows that, in video simulations, people are more likely to shoot black men. The participants—often undergraduate students, both black and white—play a simulation where they press “shoot” if they think the white or black suspect holds a gun. Consistently, psychologists have found the students more likely to shoot the unarmed black person over an unarmed white person.

    For example, a study published in 2002 from the University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Chicago found that white undergraduates had higher error rates when it came to unarmed African American suspects (1.45 per 20 trials compared to 1.23 for unarmed white suspects).


    Meanwhile, trained police officers are almost immune from this effect:

    In making snap decisions about whether to shoot a potentially armed suspect, police officers are far less influenced by racial bias than students or community members forced to make the same decision, a large study has found.

    The study, which was based on video simulations of armed and unarmed confrontations, found that racial stereotypes influenced the reaction times of both officers and civilians, but swayed the ultimate decision to fire only in civilian participants.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      Quite right-as I say in the post “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.”

      As you quote: “In making snap decisions about whether to shoot a potentially armed suspect, police officers are far less influenced by racial bias than students or community members forced to make the same decision, a large study has found.”

      So, same basic claim, though I should have said “far more likely” than just “more likely”.

  5. nailheadtom said, on May 30, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    And then there’s this: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2015/05/negligence-takes-lives-of-two-k-9-cops.html

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