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Milwaukee Police Department

2016 Report on Race and Deadly Force Decisions

In May 2016, sworn officers and recruits for the MPD worked with researchers from Michigan State University as part of the MPD's ongoing commitment to improve officer training. The details of this report are provided to the public to help build community support and advance the relationship we have with you, our citizens.

The goal of this research was to provide controlled, scientific data to help answer the question: Are officers more likely to shoot unarmed Black males compared to unarmed White males?

To study this, officers completed a shooting simulator task during which they had to make rapid decisions about whether to use deadly force. Officers viewed videos, from a first-person point of view, during which they encountered target persons. These targets quickly drew either a gun or a harmless object, and officers were to shoot if the target pulled a gun but not shoot if the targets pulled any other object. This mimics the kind of split-second decision an officer must make in determining, for instance, whether someone is bringing out a gun or a wallet during a traffic stop.

The setup was similar to this:

The most important aspect of this task is that some of the targets in the videos were Black males and some of the targets were White males. All targets sometimes pulled a gun and sometimes pulled a harmles object, making it hard for the officers to predict which object might be pulled at any given time. The main test was: Were officers more likely to incorrectly shoot unarmed Black males compared to unarmed White males?

This task was extremely difficult as officers have a very short amount of time to make a decision: 750 milliseconds, which is only 3/4 of a second. Officers cannot hesitate or delay in making the decision to shoot as they must make that decision before the target shoots back, if he has a gun.

Officers completed many trials of this task, making over a hundred decisions about whether to shoot. All the officers' data were then put together to test, Did officers incorrectly shoot Black males more than they incorrectly shot White males?

Of all the unarmed White targets, officers incorrectly shot them 12% of the time. Of all the unarmed Black targets, officers incorrectly shot them only 7% of the time:

As you can see from the above graph, MPD officers showed no bias against Black males in their decisions to use deadly force. In this task, they did not shoot unarmed Black males more than they shot unarmed White males. In fact, there was a small (but not meaningful) bias against shooting unarmed White males.

Of course no single task or study can provide conclusive data on a question. This is just one step among many that the MPD is taking in our continued efforts to be the most fair and most effective force we can. We welcome these data and further efforts as a means of providing the citizens we serve with good, hard data on a question that is of great interest to all us of right now: Officers' use of force and citizen race. The results from this test provide real, hard numbers supporting the MPD as making deadly force decisions appropriately and not biased by a citizen's race.


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