Why Brain Structure Makes Unintended Shootings Inevitable

The fact that Neri was likely to be tense, on alert, makes that kind of misfire more likely, because it could have ratcheted up the startle response, Enoka observed. "The physiological responses that cause an unintentional discharge—sympathetic contraction, loss of balance, and startle reaction—are all enhanced when an individual is aroused," he said.

To Lewinski, who is sometimes called as a defense witness for police officers on trial, what happened in Neri's brain could have been something like a perfect storm. "He goes to the door anticipating danger, squeezes the door handle, which causes a contralateral contraction. Maybe there's a push and pull simultaneously at the door, which startles him, and the gun goes off. Oh, God," he said.

That despair is too familiar in New York City. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the killing by four New York City cops of Amadou Diallo. That 22-year-old African immigrant went down in a hail of 41 bullets, 19 of which hit him. Despite the reductive parallels of a black young man's being killed by a white cop's bullet, the cases aren't really the same. Neri shot once, and his partner didn't fire at all. Yet was race still a factor?

To investigate this possibility isn't to label Neri a racist cop—it's just likely that he carries some burden of prejudice, as pretty much all of us do.

"You give me a perfect society to draw recruits from and I'll give you a perfect police officer," said James O'Keefe, a professor of criminal justice at St. John's University who was director of training at the New York Police Department Academy until late 2001.

Data from recent neurological and psychological studies compel us again to return to the amygdala. NYU neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps was the co-author of a study that looked at the relationship between racial bias, the startle response, and amygdala activation. Test subjects were exposed to loud noises while viewing photos of black or white people. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners recorded the effect on their brains. What she found, according to an interview with the W.W. Norton website Psychological Science, "was that most [white subjects]—though not all—showed greater amygdala activation to the Black faces than the White faces."

Other studies have demonstrated that higher thinking slows in response to a cross-racial stimulus, and that the amygdala response to other races is seen in black subjects too. Indeed, it may be a reaction to novelty, not fear, and if so, it could subside with exposure. The amygdala, so central to memory, naturally plays a part in how we acquire new fears, sometimes based on misperceptions. And even there, on the neuronal level, such fears can be eased as well. We know too little to conclude that Neri himself was afraid of black people.

"These police officers experience the community eight hours a day. They don't just meet minority perps, they meet minority victims and minority members of the neighborhood. I think they're probably less inclined to see things in racial terms than the average joe and more comfortable where they are than somebody whose car broke down near the projects," O'Keefe said. "A lot of people are attributing what happened to fear. I don't buy that for a second."

But other psychological tests certainly indicate the power of misjudgment, if not fear. A recent University of Wisconsin study found that "an automatic association was observed between Black faces and weapons." White subjects were shown photos of white faces and black faces, and then given flashes of images to identify as guns or tools. They were slower to correctly identify a tool when the image was associated with a black face, and more often wrongly identified a tool as a gun.

The authors of these studies weren't eager to step into the current firestorm. Phelps and others declined to comment, saying further research was needed. Some didn't reply to repeated calls and e-mails at all.

Even if neuroscience can positively link the amygdala to unconscious racial bias and the startle reaction, don't look to the lab for solutions any time soon.

Neuroscientist Gregory Quirk, with the Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico, studies fear extinction in rats by stimulating the prefrontal cortex. "In the future we might want to do something with people to help them overcome things that could traumatize them, so they will not be afraid of stimuli they are likely to encounter," he said. "But that is way far off into the future."

And recent studies on Tibetan Buddhist monks demonstrating that meditation can calm the amygdala offer little comfort for police officers or those who interact with them. "That might work for a monk in the relative safety of a monastery, but not an officer on a rooftop at 1:30," O'Keefe said of the techniques. "Even if I could do that, as a trainer I don't think I would want to. That animal instinct and survival mechanism is what keeps cops safe. That's what gets them home at night."

The solutions offered by experts interviewed for this article are more prosaic. They hit repeatedly on the same conclusions: offering frequent training in realistic scenarios and having cops carry guns with their fingers on the frame, not the trigger. But Lewinski acknowledged that simply placing a finger away from the trigger could cost a cop his life. Hundredths of a second count, he said.

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