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Implicit Bias, Racism, and the Police Killing of Andrew Loku: Expert Testimony at Inquest

Coroner’s inquests in the Canadian context never get to the heart of issues like racism and policing let along fundamental structures of policing like policing and white supremacy or policing and colonialism. Such inquests are generally limited to the specific actions of a particular event. The coroner’s inquest into the Toronto police killing of Andrew Loku, a refugee from  Sudan who suffered PTSD as a result of being kidnapped and tortured there, will likely be no different. Still community groups like the Black Action Defence Committee, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Empowerment Council, and Across Boundaries, a group that provides mental health support for racialized communities in Toronto, are working to ensure larger issues of racialization, racism, and mental health are at least addressed. They have secured participant status.

On Monday, June 12, 2017, at the beginning of the inquest’s second week, the jury heard testimony from Dr. Nicholas Rule, an associate professor of psychology, and Canada Research Chair in social perception and cognition at the University of Toronto who carries out research on implicit bias. Rule was designated as an expert in social perception and cognition for the inquest. Dr. Rule’s testimony focused on issues related to implicit bias involving race or mental health status, and how this might impact the decisions made by police officers in the course of policing. According to Rule’s research, as given in his testimony to the inquest, implicit bias can make a young Black man appear taller, heavier, and, thus, more dangerous. According to Rule, this distortion of reality can affect both white people and Black people.

Rule presented results of research undertaken with two American academic colleagues examining the impact of race on the often very quick judgments people make in assessing others whom they encounter. That study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier in 2017, examined people’s perceptions of Black men in terms of their size and, presumably relatedly, their threat level. The study, which included Canadian and American participants of a variety of racialized identities presented with a series of tests, concluded that regardless of their own “race,” participants perceived Black men as taller, heavier, more muscular, and more physically threatening than white men.

According to the researchers: “Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and, as a result, may be disproportionately targeted by police even when unarmed. Here, we found evidence that biased perceptions of young Black men’s physical size may play a role in this process” (Wilson, Hugenberg, and Rule 2017). Rule noted at the inquest that the participants in the study were not identified as police officers. The researchers did not examine possible intersections of racism and presence of a weapon.

It is likely that the notion of implicit bias is as far as the inquest will get in terms of addressing issues of and related to racism. The ongoing histories of white supremacy and colonialism in Canadian policing will likely not be on the agenda.

During the first week of the inquest, Toronto Constables Andrew Doyle and Haim Queroub were finally identified as the officers involved in killing Andrew Loku, thought which one pulled the trigger has not yet been revealed publicly. Both officers are expected to testify later during this second week of the inquest.

 

Further Reading

Wilson, John Paul, Kurt Hugenberg, and Nicholas O. Rule. 2017. “Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspi0000092.pdf

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