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The death of Tamir Rice and other cases involving the shooting deaths of black teenagers were the impetus behind a new study that finds that black men are perceived as bigger, stronger and more threatening than white men of the exact same size.
When he was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in November of 2014, the 12-year-old was described as “a grown man” between the ages of 18 and 20 by several different witnesses.
Holding a realistic-looking airsoft gun, he was perceived as a threat and killed within two seconds of Officer Timothy Loehmann exiting his patrol car at the Cudell Recreation Center.
The study’s lead author, John Paul Wilson PhD of Montclair University, told News 5 that the many details of the case stuck out to researchers.
“The way that his shooting was discussed after the fact -- with police officials describing him as a 'boy in a mans body,’” Wilson said.
He and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving more than 950 U.S. participants in which people were shown a series of color photographs of white and black male faces of individuals who were all of equal height and weight.
Participants consistently judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size, Wilson explained.
We found that perception is not objective and when we act based on a biased perception there is this potential for really negative consequences,” he said.
Alfred Porter, President of Black on Black Crime, told News 5 that the study confirmed concerns that he and other black men have experienced consistently over their lifetimes.
“I get so tired of passing somebody by and they jump,” Porter said.
Porter said the study supports the theory that Rice’s race and perceived size and age may have had an impact on the way police reacted to the situation.
“It should cause a lot of us to think about preconceived ideas and notions,” he said.
Wilson cautioned that the study did not simulate real-world threat scenarios and should not be used to fully explain an officers actions in cases like Tamir Rice’s.
Wilson said this research suggests that misperceptions of black men’s size might be one contributor to police decisions to shoot.