Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 14, 2020

Good Cop, Bad Cop: Black and White Americans Envision Police Differently

by E. Paige Lloyd
Policeman at the Black Lives Matter protest in Compton Los Angeles. 7 Jun 2020, LOS ANGELES, USA

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Black Americans are roughly three times more likely to be killed by police than White Americans. Statistics like this, accompanied by recent and highly-publicized police shootings of unarmed African Americans, have spurred research attempting to understand the relationship between the police and communities of color.

Most of this research has looked at how the police view people of color.  Psychological researchers have identified a number of ways in which beliefs about and attitudes toward Black people—and Black men, in particular—bias police officers’ tendencies to use force in interactions with civilians. However, less research has focused on how people of color view the police.

A common response to instances of police violence is to question why the person ran, appeared nervous, or engaged in physical confrontation if they had nothing to hide.  Of the 47 police-caused deaths of unarmed civilians in 2018, 20 of the victims were reported to have fled from police, and 40 were reported to have either engaged or started to engage in physical confrontation with officers (“Fatal Force: 2018 Police Shootings Database,” 2018). Such anxiety and “fight-or-flight” behaviors can be natural, and even automatic, responses to threat (Cannon, 1932).  My colleagues and I wondered, do Black Americans see the police as more threatening than White Americans do?  So, we conducted a series of experiments to examine how Black and White Americans see police officers and implications for anxiety and behavior when imagining interacting with police.

To conduct this research, we recruited Black and White Americans to a research lab where we asked them to imagine the face of the average police officer. We then showed participants pairs of photographs where the same image had been altered to appear slightly different. Participants selected which image in each pair looked more like a police officer to them and repeated this procedure across 400 pairs of photographs. (See below for an example.) This procedure was sort of like when the eye doctor shows you two similar lenses until they find just the right one for you.

Image of two similar looking men with question "which face looks more like a police officer?"

We then used computer software to average the images that each participant chose as looking more like a police officer, and from that we were able to create the photo of an “average” police officer generated by all White and all Black Americans in the study. These typical police officers created by White and Black Americans are shown below.

image of two similar looking men one with heading "Black participants" and one with heading "White Participants"

Although they look very similar, there are subtle and important differences in the ways that Black and White participants envisioned the police.  We brought in another group of participants and asked them to rate these two images on several dimensions, without telling them what they were pictures of or who made them.  According to their ratings of the images, these participants thought that the average image of police created by Black participants (in the first study) was more negative, more dominant, more masculine, and less good than the image of police generated by White participants. In other words, Black people imagine the police as looking more threatening than White people do.

But do these differences matter for police-civilian interactions?

We examined that question by bringing in yet another group of participants.  We asked this group to imagine the following situation: “You're walking home alone at night when the person pictured above says to stop walking. They are a police officer. They are armed. They begin to approach you.” This scenario was accompanied by the picture of the typical police officer that was generated by either Black or White participants in the first study (shown above).

Participants who viewed the image of a police officer generated by Black participants reported that they would feel more anxious, have a greater desire to flee the scene, and were more prepared to physically defend themselves than participants who viewed the image of the police officer generated by White participants. Importantly, this difference in reactions to the two pictures emerged regardless of the raters’ own racial identity.  White participants were just as likely as Black participants to express these reactions to the face of the police officer generated by Black participants in the first study.

In sum, we find that Black Americans envision the faces of police as more negative, less positive, and more dominant than do White Americans. And, importantly, these mental representations of police officers seem to evoke greater anxiety and fight-or-flight tendencies in people’s interactions with police—regardless of their race.

As noted earlier, psychology has tried to understand police-civilian interactions mostly by focusing on the experiences of police.  By focusing on the experience of civilians, our research increases understanding this fraught relationship.  We hope that our research might aid in dismantling the fallacy that only guilty people run or fight when interacting with police. Expecting civilians, and especially Black civilians, to remain perfectly calm and composed in interactions with police fails to consider the perspective of the civilian. Personal experiences with and a longstanding history of unfair and brutal treatment erode trust in the police, increasing the likelihood of threat responses in civilians. Ultimately, decreasing the incidence of tragic interactions between the police and Black Americans involves understanding the complexity of their interactions from multiple perspectives.

For Further Reading

Lloyd, E. P., Sim, M., Smalley, E., Bernstein, M. J., & Hugenberg, K. (2020). Good Cop, Bad Cop: Race-Based Differences in Mental Representations of Police. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 1205-1218.

Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P. A., Purdie, V. J., & Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing black: race, crime, and visual processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology87(6), 876-893.

Glaser, J. (2015). Suspect race: Causes and consequences of racial profiling. Oxford University Press, USA.

Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. A. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: consequences of dehumanizing Black children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology106(4), 526-545.

Lloyd, E. P., Kunstman, J. W., Tuscherer, T., & Bernstein, M. J. (2017). The face of suspicion: Suspicion of Whites’ motives moderates mental representations of Whites. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8, 953-960.


E. Paige Lloyd is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver. She examines impression formation with a focus on how response biases and the ability to accurately read others’ cues affect discrimination toward minority and stigmatized group members.


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