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MSU professor discusses deadly force and racial bias

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Professor Cesario (left) and Professor Conner (right) at the Psychology Speaker Series

Michigan State University psychology professor, Joseph Cesario, held a lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at Grand Rapids Community College discussing research he has conducted involving police use of deadly force and how it relates to racial bias. 

During his presentation, Cesario outlined several points of data he had collected, real-world cases and simulated laboratory decisions. 

“What do we know about the roughly 1,000, or so, U.S. citizens who are shot and killed by the police each year?” Cesario asked. “What do we know about the circumstances surrounding those shootings and what do we know about the role of racial bias of an individual’s race on the likelihood that that person might be shot?”

Cesario cautions that there is still a bit of information that is unknown. 

“It is not a straightforward series of events, even from one shooting to the next,” Cesario said. “We have to appreciate some of the uncertainty that is part of this.”

Gathering the data necessary to conduct his research was complicated. There are several factors. It is not linear data. 

“The process that leads from initial contact between a police officer and a citizen to the end point of a fatal shooting is a very complicated, dynamic, often times volatile, very uncertain process,” Cesario said. 

Cesario said the kinds of police shootings one thinks of are often sensationalized, charged by the media and do not represent fatal police shootings in their totality. 

“When it comes to fatal shootings, most people think of a number of widely publicized, really well-known, highly tragic cases that have happened in the U.S,” Cesario said. “However, this is not indicative of the country as a whole.”

Cesario’s research suggests that while there is a disparity in the percentage of black people fatally shot by police officers in comparison to white people, it is not due to a bias on behalf of police officers. Rather, there is a larger number of black people exposed to crime, he said, adding that they have more encounters with police officers and thus a greater likelihood of finding themselves in a “highly combative” situation.

“These situations are, by and large, violent crimes,” Cesario said. “Police training as well as the legal justification for police to use deadly force is tied to threats. They are tied to threats to the officer’s life or another citizen’s life. That is when police are justified in using deadly force.” 

Cesario was able to conclude that the race of the citizen who was fatally shot did not correlate to the race of the police officer. In fact, it was the opposite.

“At just a pure relationship level, it was actually the case that black officers were more likely to have shot black citizens, but that was simply due to the demographics of the county,” Cesario stated.

Cesario’s presentation was the first of four installments in GRCC’s Psychology Speaker Series. The next one, ‘Dating in the Modern Age,’ given by MSU psychology professor, William Chopik, will be on Nov. 20. 

 

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