by Marcel Sanders

Just two days before the final week of trial of former police officer, Derek Chauvin, for the death of George Floyd concluded, there was a traffic stop police shooting of an unarmed black man that occurred about ten miles from the courthouse. But this time, the shooting of a young black man, twenty-year old Daunte Wright, father of two, was labeled an “accident. The twenty-year police vet who shot Wright, claimed she had meant to taser Wright not shoot him, after he tried to drive away from the police while the police officers were at Wright’s window shouting for him to get out. In the weeks since, there here has been at least three other high profile shootings of unarmed black men and one pepper spraying of an on-duty  black Marine sergeant. Why do these shootings/ of unarmed black men happen so frequently? Is there any solutions to stop this?  These are questions that have persisted for years, without any meaningful answers or solutions being implemented.

I have recently read a psych study that found  a relation between the levels of error-related negativity (ERN) and levels of weapon/racial bias. ERN is an key component of ERP. ERP is an event- related potential, which are defined by National Center of Medicine, as small volts generated in the brain as responses to specific stimuli/events. An ERN serves as a smaller component of ERP and it is essentially an electrical brain signal measured with an EEG, which measures brain waves. An ERN happens and can be measured, when a person makes a behavioral error and is also associated with detecting conflicts “between goals and ongoing mental activity”(Payne). What does this have to do with police shootings?  ERN levels play a major role in weapon bias. This is frequently the reason why unarmed black men are shot by police, because their harmless object is mistaken to be a weapon, often a gun.

Weapon bias is the key component of a psychological study conducted by Chapel Hill psychology professor, B.Keith Payne in his research article Weapon Bias: Split-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping. Payne cited ERN’s relation to weapon bias study, to support the results of his own study proving that weapon bias is a real issue..His own study consisted of having the participants in his experiment, differentiate between guns and harmless hand tools ie a phone. Before each object appeared,a white or black face flashed but participants were asked to ignore the faces and only pay attention to the objects.  The main goal of this experiment was to test whether or not the participants would in accurately determine  if the object that appeared after the faces,was a gun or harmless hand tool regardless if they saw either a black or white face.. Although accuracy in the visual discriminations was high when participants were self-paced,when given time to only make a snap judgement,they often wrongly claimed to see a gun after seeing a black face.

The ERN study  by David M Amodio,which was cited by Payne,did a similar experiment.

After examining the ERN levels of activity in their brain, it was determined by Amodio and his team that the participants with high levels of ERN activity had less false claims of weapon bias than participants with low levels of ERN activity. This effect was also found to be mediated by the fact that they were able to  accurately differentiate between what is and what is not a threat. Both Amodio’s study and Payne’s study, show that weapon bias and racial bias frequently occurs when people are forced to make snap judgement. But, when people have more time, they are more often than not correct in assessing threats and this corresponds to higher levels of ERN activity.

I believe that police officers across the country should deeply consider implementing the  testing of the levels of ERN activity in their recruits. I believe that this can help cut down on shootings of unarmed black men, because of studies by B. Keith Payne and others, that show, that high ERN levers exhibits higher levels of control when it comes to determining threats. In terms of police shootings, this helps translate to more time for police officers determine what is and what is not a threat, when they encounter young black men such as myself. With more research into ERN levels, I see the advantages of using ERN level testing with police recruits outweighing any potential disadvantages, because the preservation of life is arguably one of the main priorities of the police.


Payne Keith B.  Weapon Bias: Split-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping.

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