Study shows racial attitudes play role in police reform support

Study shows racial attitudes play role in police reform support

New research suggests that racial attitudes may play a strong role in garnering support for reforming policing policies.

A study published this month authored by Allison Skinner of the University of Washington and Ingrid Haas, a member of the faculty in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Political Science, shows a relationship between perceived threat from police officers or black men and support for policing policy reform.

The study showed that respondents who perceived black men to be more threatening were less likely to support reform measures. Meanwhile, study participants who perceived the police as more threatening were more supportive of policing policy reform and were more likely to take actions such as signing petitions.

The results were gathered from four experiments that included a total of 998 participants.

Haas, a researcher in UNL's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, said the results of the studies, which were conducted after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, emphasized how racial attitudes are at play when approaching police reform.

“How we discuss the issue is important,” said Haas, a UNL assistant professor of political science. “For example, the goal of a protest is to draw attention to the issue and to increase support for reform, but if a protest turns violent and the attention is focused on violent protesters, that exacerbates feelings of threat.”

Skinner, who completed the research while a doctoral candidate at UNL, said the results show that when talking about police reform, race must be part of the discussion.

“It speaks to the relationship between racial attitudes and attitudes about policing,” Skinner said in a Washington news release. “By knowing that relationship exists, we can then start thinking about how to address it.”

Haas said that in one survey of 216 student participants, 25 percent affirmed their support of police using lethal force during the perpetration of any crime. The same survey of 269 adults found 12 percent agreed that lethal force was appropriate in that situation.

“Maybe people aren't talking enough about when deadly force is actually appropriate,” Haas said. “That may be getting lost in this discussion. If someone is running away and a police officer is not in danger, should they use deadly force? According to these results at least some of our participants think that's OK, or maybe they haven’t thought really carefully about it.”

The study was published July 12 in Frontiers in Psychology.