Sleep and racial bias affect police officer judgement

Stephen and Lois James of WSU’s Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane present their research on Monday.

From staff reports

Studies show sleep deprivation and racial bias affect the judgment and effectiveness of police officers on duty.

At a common reading event, WSU researchers discussed how fatigue and racial bias affects the performance of officers.

The event was led by Stephen and Lois James of WSU’s Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane, Washington. Lois’s research focuses on how sleep deprivation and implicit bias affects the performance and decision making of officers.

There is a lot of doubt surrounding the justice system in the U.S., Stephen said. The research focused on the reactions of individual police officers, he said, as the officers are real people who see the worst in others every day.

Being a cop doubles one’s risk of suicide and lowers life expectancy, Stephen said.

“It is a tough job to be a cop,” he said.

Lois’s research uses real police officers, placing them in use-of-force simulators, Stephen said.

The simulators display realistic videos of scenarios, such as domestic disturbances and vehicle stops, that officers may encounter.

He said officers are then evaluated by their performance.

Someone who is awake for more than 24 hours is equivalent to someone who has a 0.10 percent BAC level, Stephen said. Police officers are asked to protect and serve the community, being awake for 19-21 hours and more.

“Because society is 24/7, it has to be policed 24/7,” Stephen said.

Fatigue also affects short-term memory, he said.

Officers were tested on writing reports, and remembered the words spoken but confused who said them. Stephen also said fatigue increases the officer’s fear and anxiety levels, as research shows officers who are fatigued are quicker to shoot in deadly-force scenarios.

Race is the factor that has had the most profound affect in criminal justice, Lois said, affecting officers regardless of whether they are racially bias themselves.

“Officers, as part of the criminal justice system, have inherited a lot of history, and have inherited a lot of problems,” she said.

Surveys show race relations are as bad as they were in the 1970s, Lois said, during which lynching was still an occurrence. She said she wanted the research to show whether officers with a subconscious racial bias responded differently in situations based on race, if the bias made them more likely to shoot and if race or ethnicity influenced all decisions made.

In a simulation portraying a domestic dispute, the race and demeanor of people were varied to see whether or not the officers would act differently, Lois said. The latest results involved 80 experienced officers, primarily white, from various departments, she said.

The research showed 96 percent of officers held a subconscious association between African-Americans and weapons, Lois said. However, race and ethnicity held no significant weight as to how the scenario ended, she said. 14 percent of officers shot an unarmed white suspect while 1 percent of officers shot an unarmed black suspect.

Lois said there are twin motivating factors that can occur within officers: implicit racial bias and the counter-bias effect, also addressed as the reverse racism effect and the Ferguson effect. The counter-bias effect is where the officer, in the moment, is fully aware that a suspect is guilty until proven innocent, she said.

Lois said she is in the process of creating counter-bias training to decondition any effect of suspect race. She also said she wants to make a portable counter-bias training simulation to take around the country.