Journal of Experimental Criminology

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 189-212

First online:

Results from experimental trials testing participant responses to White, Hispanic and Black suspects in high-fidelity deadly force judgment and decision-making simulations

  • Lois JamesAffiliated withWashington State University Email author 
  • , Bryan VilaAffiliated withWashington State University
  • , Kenn DarathaAffiliated withWashington State University

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Advance the methodological techniques used to examine the influence of suspect race and ethnicity on participant decisions to shoot in an experimental setting.


After developing and testing a novel set of 60 realistic, high definition video deadly force scenarios based on 30 years of official data on officer-involved shootings in the United States, three separate experiments were conducted testing police (n = 36), civilian (n= 72) and military (n = 6) responses (n = 1,812) to the scenarios in high-fidelity computerized training simulators. Participants’ responses to White, Black and Hispanic suspects in potentially deadly situations were analyzed using a multi-level mixed methods strategy. Key response variables were reaction time to shoot and shooting errors.


In all three experiments using a more externally valid research method than previous studies, we found that participants took longer to shoot Black suspects than White or Hispanic suspects. In addition, where errors were made, participants across experiments were more likely to shoot unarmed White suspects than unarmed Black or Hispanic suspects, and were more likely to fail to shoot armed Black suspects than armed White or Hispanic suspects. In sum, this research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects in their decisions to shoot.


The results of these three experiments challenge the results of less robust experimental designs and shed additional light on the broad issue of the role that status characteristics, such as race and ethnicity, play in the criminal justice system. Future research should explore the generalizability of these findings, determine whether bias favoring Black suspects is a consequence of administrative measures (e.g., education, training, policies, and laws), and identify the cognitive processes that underlie this phenomenon.


Police Decision making Suspect race Suspect ethnicity