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Black Lives Matter: Psychological Research Findings Offer Ways to Foster Justice

Police violence against black men seems like a daily occurrence. There are the well-known cases, such as that of Michael Brown, 18, who was shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in August 2014 and that of Laquan McDonald, 17, who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer in October 2014. Then there are the lesser known tragic stories, including a November 2012 incident in which Malissa Williams and Timothy Russel, an unarmed black couple, led police on a 19-mile chase through the streets of Cleveland, Ohio. When the chase finally ended, 13 officers emptied 137 rounds into the couple's car, with one officer doing so while standing on the hood and shooting the windshield.

The Black Lives Matter movement — organized in 2013 in response to George Zimmerman's acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin — has quickly gathered momentum, and the group's emphasis has shifted toward police misconduct. Racial tension between police and minority groups is not new — many of us remember the Rodney King beating in 1991 in Los Angeles — and psychological research assessing race and policing is similarly long-lived. Research shows, for example, that compared with whites, blacks feel more negative stereotype threats (Najdowski, Bottoms, & Goff, 2015) and more racial profiling (Weitzer & Tuch, 2005) when interacting with the police.

Given the ongoing strife between protesters who feel that black lives may not matter in the eyes of the justice system — and a police system that justifiably feels that it is under attack for the actions of a few "bad apples" — the need to relieve such tension is imperative.

Psychological research points to one possible solution. Studies find that when police act in a procedurally just manner and treat people with dignity, respect, fairness and neutrality, people are more likely to comply with their directives and accept any outcome, be it favorable or unfavorable (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). Such legitimacy — the extent to which the police are entitled to be deferred to and obeyed — also influences jury decisions. A survey of 2,000 felony jurors, for example, found that jurors who had little trust and confidence in the police are less likely to favor the prosecution and less likely to vote guilty, though this holds primarily for black jurors; white jurors tend to support the prosecution even when their confidence in the police is low (Farrell, Pennington, & Cronin, 2013).

Such research suggests that using procedural justice initiatives to increase police legitimacy — and showing that black lives do matter — may be the best way to address the racially charged climate in the United States. A recent study that used a procedural justice intervention showed how. In the study, researchers randomly assigned drivers at DUI checkpoints to either a standard police encounter (a breathalyzer exam using little interaction with the police) or a procedural justice interaction (a breathalyzer exam along with police interactions that explained the purpose of the stop, reinforced the neutrality regarding who was stopped, and elicited driver feedback). Those in the procedural justice stop condition had more positive views about both the specific stop and the police in general (Mazerolle, Antrobus, Bennet, & Tyler, 2013).

Of course, additional checks and balances can similarly increase the legitimacy of the police, including using body cameras to track the good things officers often do as well as the bad. Research already shows that there are fewer excessive force complaints when a camera is present (Ariel, Farrar, & Sutherland, 2014).

Finally, we should never forget that many officers often do good deeds. Just ask Kijana Strong, a black motorist whose viral video story of how two white officers helped to push his damaged car 200 yards to safety garnered over 4 million views. Will Stack, a 22-year-old black national guardsman, similarly made viral-video headlines when he shared the story of a white officer who pulled him over and explained why Stack's use of the street median was illegal. "People need to understand that not all officers are crooked," Stack said, "[and] not all cops are racist, bad people." Justice can easily be color blind when we treat people with the respect they deserve.

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