On Racial Bias and Police Shootings

By Simon Hedlin*

More than a hundred blacks have been shot and killed by the police this year. According to data compiled by The Washington Post, nearly 600 individuals have died in police shootings in 2016. About half of those killed were ethnic minorities, and blacks were more than twice as likely to be fatally shot as whites. The disproportionate police violence against blacks raises the question of whether, and to what degree, law enforcement discriminates against African-Americans in its use of lethal and non-lethal force.

New research indicates significant racial bias in law enforcement’s use of non-lethal force against racial minorities. In a paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Roland Fryer of Harvard University investigated the existence of racial bias in the use of force among police officers. When Fryer looked at non-lethal use of force by the police, such as slapping or grabbing, there were substantial racial disparities. Accounting for more than 125 variables—including factors related to the behavior of the civilian and the context of the interaction between the civilian and the officer—Fryer found that blacks and Hispanics “are more than fifty percent more likely to have an interaction with police which involves any use of force.” What this result means is that in any given interaction between a civilian and a police officer, racial minorities are more likely to encounter non-lethal force. This finding lends clear support to the notion that a significant number of law enforcement officers discriminate against racial minorities—at least when it comes to use of non-lethal force.

Strikingly, however, when Fryer looked specifically at police shootings, the significant racial bias faded. He writes:

To be clear, the empirical thought experiment here is that a police officer arrives at a scene and decides whether or not to use lethal force. Our estimates suggest that this decision is not correlated with the race of the suspect.

In other words, Fryer’s data suggests that there is racial bias in the police use of force, but not when it comes to police shootings specifically. Since the data that he used for this specific examination come from a limited number of cities that represent merely four percent of America’s population, there could be important differences across cities that he did not take into account. The study cannot shed light on whether officers that serve in the communities that constitute the remaining 96 percent of the country do, in fact, exhibit racial bias in police shootings.

But other pieces of evidence support Fryer’s account. In a recent article in the journal Injury Prevention, Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland presents with his co-authors different data on police violence. Miller and co-authors found that about 1 in 291 arrests or police stops “resulted in hospital-treated injury or death of a suspect or bystander.” This rate did not vary based on ethnicity or race. In an interview, Miller summarized their results as follows:

What this study says is that it doesn’t matter what your race is when you’re in a stop and frisk situation or arrest situation with a police officer. Your chance of being injured or killed is the same regardless of race – it’s equally dangerous for everyone.

A new report by the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank, presents similar findings. Phillip Atiba Goff of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-authors gathered data from 12 law enforcement departments around the country. When they looked at racial disparities, they found no statistically significant difference in the average use of lethal force per arrest between black and white arrestees.

So, what do these findings mean for policymakers seeking to reduce police shootings of civilians in general and of racial minorities in particular? Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University points to the importance of diversifying police departments to make them better represent the local communities that they serve. Coupled with rigorous sensitivity training, this could help reduce discrimination against ethnic minorities. But if Fryer, Miller, and Goff are correct, these measures would primarily affect the use of non-lethal force; they would not be sufficient to tackle the overrepresentation of black fatalities in police shootings.

Importantly, the primary cause of racial disparities in officer-involved shootings appears to be not what happens during a given interaction, but that the interaction occurs in the first place. A report issued in July by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement in San Francisco supports this conclusion. It found that roughly 40 percent of the victims in police shootings in the city from January 2010 through July 2015 were black (even though African-Americans make up less than six percent of San Francisco’s population). Notably, this racial disparity in police shootings closely tracks the racial disparity in arrests; official data for 2005-2014 shows that 43 percent of all arrests in the city were of black individuals. This pattern can also be observed at a national level. As Sendhil Mullainathan, also of Harvard University, discussed last year, 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims across America were African-American—as were 28.9 percent of arrestees.

To make a substantial dent in police killings of blacks, it therefore appears that the number of civilian-police interactions must first be decreased. As Conor Friedersdorf emphasized in an article for The Atlantic, significant progress would be made simply by reducing unnecessary interactions during traffic stops. The aforementioned research indicates that reducing the number of arrests and police stops would save many lives, particularly the lives of ethnic minorities.

Yet, racial disparities in police shootings is not an issue for law enforcement alone to solve. It is true that many arrests and police stops (which are precursors to police shootings) appear to be driven by bias—as the Justice Department, for instance, found in its recent investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, concluding that blacks are subject “to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests.” But that is not the whole story.

Mullainathan further notes that “the police are at least in part guided by suspect descriptions. And the descriptions provided by victims already show a large racial gap: Nearly 30 percent of reported offenders were black.” So, to the extent that racial bias is to blame for the disproportionate number of African-Americans killed by the police, it is likely that it is a systemic problem existing at a societal level, not just at a police department level. Eliminating the overrepresentation of blacks killed by law enforcement will thus require more than merely combatting prejudice among individual officers.

* Simon Hedlin is a 1L at Harvard Law School and a contributor to The Economist. He can be reached on Twitter: @simonhedlin

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