Source: Matthew J. Sharps
As we saw in our last Forensic View, the media have highlighted officer-involved shootings (OISs) in recent years, often with corresponding social consequences.
We also saw that the judgment of such controversial cases lies not only in the logic and evidence of the case.
The language of the given officer, and the language within which responsibility for a given OIS is constructed, may prove critical for the views of the incident developed by prospective jurors.
What other psychological factors can create bias in our judgments of an OIS? For example, can the gender of the suspect or the prospective juror have an effect?
The fate of an officer-involved in an OIS is frequently decided by jurors, who typically receive most of their information verbally (see Sharps, 2022). So, with the assistance of experienced law enforcement personnel, we created two written, verbal versions of a field-valid OIS scenario in which a male officer shot an armed adult suspect.
The versions were identical, except in one aspect. In one version, the suspect was male. In the other, she was female. This study aimed to explore how our ideas about sex and gender might influence our views of OISs (Hinojosa et al., 2019).
As was said of the development of early revolvers, guns serve to a great degree as “equalizers.” A small woman with a gun is every bit as deadly as a large man. By the standards of modern law enforcement policies in the US, our scenarios required officers, if they were abiding by department requirements, to fire on an assistant, whether female or male.
This was exactly how adult female saw the situation in our research. Women saw the officer in the OIS as no less professional when he fired on the armed female suspect than on the male. This, in law enforcement terms, was tactically correct. Female in our research has generally been agreed with this tactical reality.
Male were another story.
For men, an officer was seen as significantly less professional if he fired on an armed woman than an armed man. Unlike women, men found more fault with the officer if he fired on an armed woman than a man, even when the situation required the officer to fire on an assistant of either identified sex. This was illogical, but it happened.
Views of gender and violence have changed significantly over the centuries. Ancient legends of the Amazons, for example, sometimes depicted female warriors as seductive but also, typically, as unpredictable and dangerous (eg, Mayor, 2014).
Real women warriors exist, and they existed in the past. In western Asia, for example, we find ancient tombs where “warrior” women were buried with their armor and weapons. These were generally cattle-herding people, for whom anti-rustling accouterments were probably as necessary for women as men (as anyone familiar with the nineth-century American West could affirm). The Amazon “Army” of King Gezo in nineteenth-century Dahomey, used to assert his supremacy in his slave-dealing activities, is an established fact (eg, Rothery, 1995).
There are many other examples. Women are perfectly capable of violence in the face of physical necessity. Yet traditionally, there has been a bizarre mythological overlay regarding this fact: the Amazon with a breast removed in the interest of archery, killing her male offspring but preserving the female, etc. (Mayor, 2014). From the ancient world to today, and in media, from Mrs. Peel in the 1960s avengers to Xena the Warrior Princess In the 1990s, to a variety of violent video games today, society has never seemed clear or comfortable with these issues.
This lack of clarity may have consequences.
In recent research, we generated stimulus items in which the central figure was a large, physically powerful male fugitive recovery agent (the colloquial term is “bounty hunter”). He was asked, for the purpose of this research, and while wielding various weapons in different stimulus photographs, to appear as menacing as possible. He succeeded.
Nevertheless, several female experimental, serendipitously and spontaneously, volunteered the idea that they could “kick his a**.” These women, mean weight perhaps 115 pounds, with no reported relevant skills, told us they could beat up a large, armed, and subjectively menacing professional bounty hunter.
Human views of gender and violence may not be based entirely on logic and evidence, especially given cultural tendencies to obscure these roles in hazy mythological constructs. The source of’s belief in the professional failure of an officer who fires, within policy, on an female armed and of some female men’s unwarranted confidence in their abilities to subdue an armed bounty hunter may lie in these constructs.
There are, of course, factors in this realm that are emphatically unrelated to gender. For example, in our research, of both sexes with higher verbal skills, indicative of a better understanding of the information they’d been provided, found less fault with the officer in the given OIS. Some factors in consideration of an OIS are influenced by gender, and others are not. Further research is needed and indeed essential.
At this point in the Western world’s history, human ideas of sex and gender are perhaps more fluid than ever before in human history; yet the criminal justice system was in much less fluid times. To safeguard the rights of all human beings, regardless of sex or gender, research psychologists must accelerate research into how important aspects of sex and gender interact with the psychological dynamics of the criminal justice system.
Of course, other factors may influence views of a given OIS in similarly subtle ways.