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The double-edged sword: Stereotype threat is perpetrating coercive policing tactics

Police brutality against minorities and police reform have become major issues in America, particularly with the widespread media attention to the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and too many others. History (including recent history) has fed into the stereotype that cops are racist; however, the fact that this stereotype exists might be exacerbating the problem. Stereotypes are powerful psychologically. As the observer, we pay more attention to things that are consistent with our stereotypes (i.e., attentional bias and confirmation bias). As the actor, knowing a stereotype can lead to inadvertently confirming the stereotype through a process known as stereotype threat.

In most instances, stereotype threat is negative and results in increased pressure and doubts. For example, take the stereotype that women are bad at math. In a standardized testing Reporting gender at the beginning of a standardized test might inadvertently trigger this stereotype, resulting in a female test taker to become anxious and then underperform in math. This outcome can occur even if the female is not bad at math, and it further confirms and perpetuates the stereotype. For police officers, knowing that there is a stereotype that police are racist could result in the officer expecting a black individual with whom they are interacting to be difficult to control, resulting in the officer behaving in a negative way. Again, this outcome might occur even if the police officer is not racist, and it will confirm and perpetuate the stereotype.

Therefore, longstanding stereotypes on the racism of police may just reinforce what they tell us. In “The Force of Fear: Police Stereotype Threat, Self-Legitimacy, and Support for Excessive Force”, Erin M. Kerrison and Rick Trinkner hypothesize longstanding stereotypes about racist police reinforces racist police behavior. In this study, researchers surveyed police officers about their fear of being considered racist, perceptions of self-legitimacy, and stance on use of force tactics.

Results indicated that stereotype threat decreases perceptions of self-legitimacy, which then results in an increase in support of coercive police tactics (consistent with the racist police stereotypes). In other words, officers who feared being perceived as racist were more likely to support tactics that might result in racist behavior. Most officer demographics (e.g., race, sex,) did not impact these findings, however older officers were more likely to support excessive control tactics. Stereotype threat and self-legitimacy were negatively related – so as stereotype threat increases, perceptions of self-legitimacy decreases. Thus, stereotyping can influence police officers’ perceptions of their moral position.

This research does not seek to excuse the racial injustices that have dominated the media, rather it illustrates that stereotyping police officers is not a progressive solution. In fact, making such generalized statements has an overall negative effect on both officers and the communities in which they affect. As the police force relies on public trust and reliability, without that relationship to the community, they are more likely to resort to excessive force to maintain control. This is of course one factor in the issue of police brutality and police perception, but it is an easy way for regular people to promote a healthier, stable relationship with their local law enforcement. Choosing to avoid spreading the “all cops are racist” stereotype could reduce the tensions between officers and minority communities.

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