Is Confirmation Bias Responsible for Police Taser Assaults on Black People?

By Iain Gould, Solicitor

Photo of Iain Gould, solicitor, who discusses reasons for police Taser assaults.
Iain Gould, solicitor, discusses reasons for police Taser assaults.

According to statistics just released by the Home Office to the BBC, black people are three times more likely than white people to be involved in Taser incidents.

The research shows the electric stun gun was drawn, aimed or fired 38,135 times in England and Wales over five years.

In more than 12% of cases Tasers were used against black people, who make up about 4% of the population.

I have long maintained that there is a growing trend for the unnecessary and unreasonable use of Tasers (see here, for example). Now, we have concrete evidence of their disproportionate use against a certain ethnic group.

But why?

One theory is that the police, like the rest of us, are subject to “confirmation bias” which is defined in Science Daily as the “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions”.

If police officers have the perception that black people are more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour, that they will attempt to evade capture, or forcibly resist arrest, they will consciously or unconsciously seek out proof. Using Tasers during an arrest is just one way of justifying their (unfounded) assumptions.

Photo of Stephon McCalla's back after a police Taser assault.
Stephon McCalla’s back after a police Taser assault.

Taser Assault on Innocent Black Man

An example of police confirmation bias against black people is the case of my client Stephon McCalla (details used with his permission and based on his version of events).

Stephon is a young black man who had never been in trouble with the police. He was walking to his local gym on a sunny day in June 2010 when, unbeknown to him, local police were actively looking for a black suspect who had raped a student at knifepoint.

Mr McCalla was stopped by an officer with a dog who told him that they were looking for someone with his profile.  Stephon gave his name and address and told him he was heading to the gym. The Officer called for backup. Stephon understandably felt uneasy.

10-15 minutes after he had first been stopped, several police vehicles arrived and positioned themselves so as to box Stephon and the dog handler in. Seven white officers alighted. Stephon was extremely alarmed by developments.

Photo showing close up of Taser barb embedded in Stephon McCalla's back after police assault.
Close up of Taser barb embedded in Stephon McCalla’s back after police assault.

Four of the officers approached. At this stage, Stephon had his thumbs in his back pockets with his arms hanging down. One officer told Stephon to “Give me your hands”. Stephon did so and as he did, the officer took hold of his forearm and suddenly said, “He’s going to attack”.

The officer grabbed Stephon’s wrist and tried to force his arm behind his back and handcuff him. Stephon could not believe what was happening and having done nothing wrong and having been given no explanation, resisted.

In response, other officers applied a succession of knee strikes and blows to his body and then five or six punches to his face. Eventually, Stephon felt his leg about to give way and as he began to fall to the ground, he was Tasered to the back. His body shuddered and he fell heavily onto his right shoulder.

Following his arrest, Stephon could see the officers in discussion. They were holding a picture up on a piece of paper. He could see that the picture was of a black man’s face. The officers held it up and were looking at Stephon and looking back at the photograph. One officer said, “We’ve got the wrong man.”

Despite this Stephon was arrested and taken to a local police station. Upon arrival, he still had two of the Taser barbs embedded in his back. A police nurse and Doctor tried to remove the Taser barb from his body but concluded that the barb was embedded so deeply that Stephon would have to attend hospital.

After a short while, Stephon was taken to hospital where with some difficulty, the barb was extracted and stitches applied.

Photo of Taser barbs which were embedded in Stephon McCalla's back.
Taser barbs were embedded in Stephon McCalla’s back.

Mr McCalla was taken back to the police station where he was eventually interviewed.

The police told him that he had been stopped because he bore a strong resemblance to an armed man wanted for a serious offence but that because of how he had reacted, he had been arrested for a public order offence.

Stephon was eventually released on police bail having spent over 14 hours in custody. Several weeks later, he was advised that no further action was to be taken against him.

With my help, Stephon brought a civil action against the police. Liability was robustly denied. Notwithstanding this denial, Stephon’s claim settled for substantial damages plus costs together with an apology following the issue of court proceedings.

Addressing Confirmation Bias

It appears that the police’s confirmation bias that black men like Stephon are dangerous individuals led to this brutal and unjustified Taser assault.

Stephon’s only “crimes” were being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. His understandable and perfectly reasonable resistance to an unlawful arrest led to the disproportionate use of force, and especially the unnecessary discharge of a Taser when he had already been subdued and was falling to the ground.

The police then showed their true colours by arresting Stephon for a (bogus) public order offence because of how he had reacted, convincing themselves that his conduct was unlawful, and fitting the confirmation bias narrative. (s.5 of the Public Order Act 1986 says that a person is guilty of an offence if he “uses threatening (or abusive) words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour”.)

In light of today’s BBC report and Mr McCalla’s case it seems to me that the police still have a long way to go to address what Sir William McPherson described as an “institutional racist” organisation in his 1999 report about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. They need to address confirmation bias as well.

 

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Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.