Who Perceives Bias?
What best predicts perceptions of bias in the criminal justice system, particularly for those who have not personally observed it? Given the wide racial confidence gap in police impartiality, separate statistical tests (logit regressions) were run among white, black, and Hispanic Americans respectively to determine what demographic variables, beliefs, and experiences best predict the belief that the justice system favors white Americans.49 (See footnote and Appendix G more statistical information).

Across all three groups, the belief that police tactics are “too harsh” positively and significantly predicts the perception that the justice system is not impartial. Conversely, conservatism among all three groups significantly predicts the belief that the system treats everyone equally. Being liberal does not predict perceptions of bias among blacks and Hispanics, but does among whites.

Among whites, being liberal, perceiving a lack of police accountability, and scoring high on the Sensitivity to Harm Index (SHI) also statistically predict perceiving bias in the justice system. Among blacks, being male and older also significantly predict perceptions of bias. Hispanics are also more likely to perceive bias if they know someone who was stopped and searched by an officer, arrested, or jailed.

The Sensitivity to Harm Index predicts perceptions of bias among white Americans and weakly among Hispanics. Empathy may lead whites to believe that other people may experience different treatment in the justice system. It may be harder for those with less empathy to believe the charge of bias if they don’t see or experience it personally.

Significant Predictors of Perceiving Bias in Justice System:

Among Whites

Among Blacks

Among Hispanics

Predicts Perceiving Justice System as Biased
  • Perceive police use harsh tactics
  • Perceive police lack accountability
  • Liberal
  • High score on Sensitivity to Harm Index (SHI)
  • Perceive police use harsh tactics
  • Male
  • Older
  • Perceive police use harsh Tactics
  • Know someone searched, arrested, jailed
  • High score on Sensitivity to Harm Index (SHI)
Predicts Perceiving Justice System as Impartial
  • Conservative
  • Conservative
  • Conservative
Note: All results shown are statistically significant p <.05; see Appendix G for full results.


49 This uses a method similar to that used in Ronald Weitzer and Steven A. Tuch, “Racially Biased Policing: Determinants of Citizen Perceptions,” Social Forces 83, no. 3 (2005): 1009–30; The regression model shows how much variance in the dependent variable is explained by each independent variable when all other independent variables are held constant. The predicted dependent variable is the perception that the police treat whites better than other racial groups, or not. The independent variables include: gender, age, race, income, education, age, community type, ideology, concern about crime, knowing someone who was either stopped and searched by an officer, arrested, or sent to jail, experience with police mistreatment, perception that police use harsh tactics, perception that police lack accountability, and the Sensitivity to Harm Index (SHI).

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