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Misinterpreting Danger? Stereotype Threat, Pre-attack Indicators, and Police-Citizen Interactions

Abstract

This paper compares police trainings and materials on pre-attack indicators in police-citizen interactions with similar behavioral indicators of stereotype threat, which is not necessarily a sign of danger. Stereotype threat is a social identity threat in which individuals feel that they may be judged or treated negatively based on a social group stereotype (Steele 1997). This psychological threat can increase the target’s anxiety, physiological arousal, and decrease cognitive capacity. We hypothesize that symptoms of stereotype threat might be similar to pre-attack indicators being taught to police in the USA, which can lead police to potentially misinterpret a citizen’s actions. Using a deductive content analysis, three coders analyzed a sample of pre-attack indicator police trainings for three indicators of stereotype threat: anxiety, arousal, and reduced cognitive capacity. Results found significant overlap between danger indicators taught in trainings and stereotype threat indicators. All 15 identified trainings contained at least one of the three indicators of stereotype threat, and 13 contained at least two indicators. None of the trainings discussed stereotype threat. We argue that stereotype threat should be taught in addition to relevant indicators of danger in trainings, lest officers misinterpret citizens’ stereotype threat-related behaviors solely as manifestations of imminent danger.

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Correspondence to Kimberly Barsamian Kahn.

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The authors would like to thank Maria Villarreal, August Krater, Jaboa Lake, and the Portland State University GRASP Lab for their assistance with this project.

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Kahn, K.B., McMahon, J.M. & Stewart, G. Misinterpreting Danger? Stereotype Threat, Pre-attack Indicators, and Police-Citizen Interactions. J Police Crim Psych 33, 45–54 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-017-9233-1

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Keywords

  • Police training
  • Stereotype threat
  • Pre-attack indicators
  • Race
  • Danger