Helms School of Government


Doctor of Philosophy in Criminal Justice (PhD)


Fritz Gerald Salomon


Air Force, excessive punishment, implicit bias, nonjudicial, race, reform


Social and Behavioral Sciences


The purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological study was to understand whether implicit bias influenced disproportionate commander-imposed punishment of junior ranking Black Airmen from grades E1–E4 who previously served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. The theory guiding this study is the implicit bias theory introduced by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in 1995. This theory identifies that attitudes, perceptions, and stereotypes shape specific groups' associations and qualities, which can influence decisions. This qualitative study employed a hermeneutic phenomenology research design. This study used snowballing and purposeful sampling methods to recruit 16 participants. Data within this study was collected through an online survey, semi-structured interviews, and analytical memos. The data was coded using thematic development in the qualitative data analysis software NVivo 12 Plus. Five themes were identified in the research data: 1) Implicit Bias, 2) Commander Authority, 3) Stereotypes, 4) Mental Health, and 5) Military Justice Training. The findings revealed that implicit bias was a contributing factor to nonjudicial punishment decisions, and race was a secondary influence on punishment severity. The results show that implicit bias has a consistent impact on both Black and White nonjudicial punishment, as it was present amongst all enlisted participants. In addition, former commanders identified their experiences regarding punishment and shared how implicit bias can impact decision-making. In doing so, they identified the need for a codified collaboration process for discipline application. The study’s implications, findings, limitations, and recommendations for future research are also discussed.