A Medical Solution to Reducing Police Brutality

International Neuroethics Society Science Communication Essay Winner, 2017
November 10, 2017

Each year the International Neuroethics Society (INS) holds a Student/Postdoc Essay Contest. This is the winning 2017 science communication essay; the winning academic essay is by Joseph J. Avery.

By Natalia M. Montes, University of Washington, departments of psychology and philosophy

“On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the Constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.” – U.S. Police Oath

Minority civilians are being murdered at the hands of law enforcement. The issue has come upon increased scrutiny as large resistance groups, such as Black Lives Matter, gain momentum. Social scientists have begun to address this phenomenon by linking the behavior of certain police officers to key traits of what’s known as implicit bias – a complex and unconscious tendency in which we attribute stereotypes and qualities to an individual in a social or racial group. Many seek methods of combatting such biases before gunshots are fired. Police cultural sensitivity and training courses have begun to circulate around the United States, but what if the solution to the violence could instead be found in the form of medication? It may be worth reviewing racially motivated police brutality not only as a form of institutional racism, but a psychological disorder.

Since 2015, The Washington Post has been compiling a database of every fatal shooting in the United States by an active duty police officer. Over 800 people have been killed in 2017 with racial demographics indicating a repeated trend of large and disproportionate killings of black people by police officers. In a country that values quick, fast, and cheap solutions, a medical solution alongside situational coaching may be a considered future of social and medical advancement.

Earlier this year, at an Allen L. Edwards talk at the University of Washington in Seattle, Dr. Kerry Kawakami, a psychology professor at York University, discussed how the human face plays a crucial role in intergroup situations. She described previous research which has convincingly shown that people are better at understanding and extracting information from faces that belong to people of their own race and less so for other races. In Kawakami’s current research, she uses eye monitoring technology to trace what areas of the face white participants gave the most attention to in pictures of white and black faces. A key finding showed that white participants gave more attention to the eyes of white people than those black people. Another major finding showed that white participants were less able to distinguish between expressions of fear and anger in the faces of black people. The findings associate with the Own-Race Effect, a tendency in which people can better identify members of their own race rather than others.

Efforts in reducing the rate at which police officers are committing these violent acts due to a low tendency to emotionally identify with members of other races, specifically black Americans, have been of keen interest most recently. Researchers at Washington State University have developed training that can help police officers in decision making during tense and potentially dangerous situations. The goal of the training is to counter implicit bias through situational simulation. The major aspect of the training includes learning danger cues, i.e. cues that would indicate a legitimate physical threat to a police officer, over racial stereotypes. This would include a differentiation of whether a person of color is reaching for their identification rather than reaching for a gun. Implementation of the training has begun on a small number of police forces in the Pacific Northwest and looks set to spread across the country.1 Some larger cities have already funded police training that focus on increasing cultural sensitivity, empathy, and respect, understanding the difference between fear and anger, developing techniques for managing one’s response to anger, and learning preventive strategies to avoid escalations entirely. Although evidence-based and beneficial, the cost of funding these trainings may not be top priority for police departments in an era where current administration will not directly condemn violent police misconduct.

In 2012, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) published findings that the drug propranolol significantly reduced negative racial implicit biases in participants of their study. Further findings showed lower heart rate and no affect in subjective mood. As a beta-blocker, the drug blocks the release of noradrenaline and adrenaline, also referred to as the “fight or flight” response hormones. The NCBI referred to previously confirmed findings that found that white participants viewing faces of unknown black people experienced an increase in activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that corresponds with emotion and fear responses. Previous studies have even shown that propranolol reduces responses in the amygdala to facial expressions and visual emotional stimuli. In Kawakami’s talk earlier this year, she pondered the idea that these instinctive and bodily responses could be a key motivating factor in the shootings of unarmed black Americans by many white police officers.

In 2015, Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, told the grand jury of the infamous case of unjust civilian death by shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, that Brown had “the most intense, aggressive face,” and looked “like a demon.” Could it be that Wilson would have perceived more accurately a face of terror and fear if he had been under the treatment of propranolol? Propranolol as a treatment for racial implicit biases and violence amongst white officers and black civilians is a new idea that could be a possible solution in country desperately looking to reduce murder amongst an increasingly militarized police force. To implement such a treatment will not be excessively costly for precincts to fund2  and effects would be seen nearly immediately as described in the 2012 NCBI study.

Going forward, researchers, taxpayers, and lawmakers will need to consider whether the effects of altering judgments through medication is an equitable solution. Further studies should focus on determining whether the effects of propranolol would have any impact on a police officer’s ability to make quick, lifesaving decisions and whether medical treatment would be equally as or more effective than the approaches that are currently being used. In an era of continuously acquitted police officers where racially-motivated murders seem obvious, perhaps requiring these officers to take propranolol would provide some ease to the pain of friends and families of the victims. If such a medical treatment presents itself to be an acceptable and credibly beneficial solution, police officers with racial implicit biases may have met their match.

1According to Seattle’s National Public Radio member, KUOW, the training has been implemented on smaller police forces along the Oregon coast and will be implemented on a larger police department in Cleveland in early 2018.

2Calculated using the cost of propranolol in single dose (40mg), as given to participants in the NCBI study. Drugs.com prices a single dose at 15 cents, which adds to $55.75 dollars a year per officer, not including the cost of insurance.


Banwell, Kim Malcolm Katherine. “Can Police Officers Be Trained to Discard Their Racial Biases?” KUOW News and Information, National Public Radio, 6 Oct. 2017, kuow.org/post/can-police-officers-be-trained-discard-their-racial-biases.

Chamberlain S.R., Mueller U., Blackwell A.D., Robbins T.W., Sahakian B.J. Noradrenergic modulation of working memory and emotional memory in humans. Psychopharmacology. 2006;188:397–407.

Hatch, Addy. “CBTSim Certified by International Police Training Organization | College of Nursing | Washington State University.” College of Nursing, Dr. Lois James, 27 July 2017, https://nursing.wsu.edu/2017/07/27/cbtsim-certified-iadlest-police-training/.

State of Missouri v. Darren Wilson, https://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/11/24/ferguson-assets/grand-jury-testimony.pdf (Grand Jury August 20, 2014).

Terbeck, S., Kahane, G., McTavish, S., Savulescu, J., Cowen, P. J., & Hewstone, M. (2012). Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias. Psychopharmacology, 222(3), 419–424. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-012-2657-5.

The views and opinions expressed in these essays are presented independently by the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the International Neuroethics Society.