This article is the first in a series exploring the effects that unconscious racial biases have on the criminal justice system in the United States. While this article reports on evidence of those biases, subsequent essays will propose ways to mitigate their effects.
Long before Officer Darren Wilson fired the shots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, questions of racial bias have hovered over the criminal justice system in the United States. While the problem has been increasingly well documented, so far the solutions have proved elusive.
In 2009, while chasing a man he caught breaking into his car, off-duty New York City police officer Omar Edwards was shot and killed by a fellow officer, Andrew Dunton, who saw Edwards with his gun drawn and mistook him for a criminal.
Edwards was African-American; Dunton is white. The incident prompted then-New York Governor David Patterson to create a task force to review all cases from the previous 30 years in which a police officer had mistakenly shot and killed another officer anywhere in the United States; it also explored hundreds of similar cases of mistaken identity that did not prove fatal, with an eye toward preventing future shootings.
Given that a disproportionate number of the victims were black or Hispanic—12 of the 26 officers killed in the United States between 1981 and 2009, including 9 of the 10 who were off-duty—the task force members felt obligated to consider the role of race. Their conclusion? Weeding “virulent racists” out of police departments is not enough. Instead, getting to the root of the problem required “police departments to go beyond the issue of overt bias to deal with the unconscious biases that influence all people, including police officers,” they wrote. (The emphasis is theirs.)