Study: No evidence white cops more likely to use lethal force against minorities

While this isn’t likely to settle the national debate on a highly controversial issue any time soon, we have one more data point from a reputable source to add to the background literature. It’s been preached in social justice circles and on cable news for many years now that there’s an epidemic of white cops shooting and killing primarily black or Hispanic suspects. But is it really true?

To be sure we’ve unfortunately encountered a number of bad cops who have wantonly murdered suspects, with many of those being persons of color. Some have wound up going to jail, such as former Officer Michael Slager who murdered Walter Scott in cold blood. Other in more borderline cases have not faced any significant punishment. But what about the numbers? The National Academy of Sciences has been involved in a gathering of data for some time now, seeking to get to the truth behind the legends. And they’ve published their results. Unfortunately, the answers they arrived at may not satisfy anyone, though they do lean in one direction. Here’s the abstract, which covers the high notes nicely. (You need a subscription to get the full report and we can’t republish it here.)

Despite extensive attention to racial disparities in police shootings, two problems have hindered progress on this issue. First, databases of fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) lack details about officers, making it difficult to test whether racial disparities vary by officer characteristics. Second, there are conflicting views on which benchmark should be used to determine racial disparities when the outcome is the rate at which members from racial groups are fatally shot. We address these issues by creating a database of FOIS that includes detailed officer information. We test racial disparities using an approach that sidesteps the benchmark debate by directly predicting the race of civilians fatally shot rather than comparing the rate at which racial groups are shot to some benchmark. We report three main findings: 1) As the proportion of Black or Hispanic officers in a FOIS increases, a person shot is more likely to be Black or Hispanic than White, a disparity explained by county demographics; 2) race-specific county-level violent crime strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot; and 3) although we find no overall evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities in fatal shootings, when focusing on different subtypes of shootings (e.g., unarmed shootings or “suicide by cop”), data are too uncertain to draw firm conclusions. We highlight the need to enforce federal policies that record both officer and civilian information in FOIS.

So the bottom line is that there is no data to support the idea that white cops are more likely to fatally shoot black or Hispanic suspects than their black and Hispanic law enforcement colleagues. In fact, as the number of black and Hispanic officers in any given district increases, it’s more likely that minority suspects will be fatally shot by minority law enforcement officers.

But before those of you ready to proclaim “I told you so” in defense of most white police officers get started, the rest of the findings are far more tenuous. The study also doesn’t eliminate the possibility that white officers might be more likely to shoot. There’s simply not enough data to draw firm conclusions. It seems that the idea of some sort of epidemic of racist cops is far from likely, but there may be trends that the data can’t identify.

What does seem to be clear is something that was probably intuitive for the layman. A lot of this relies on the demographics where you are studying the data. Counties with high minority representation and more black and Hispanic officers are more likely to have more minority criminals and more minority officers shooting them when a confrontational situation turns violent. Largely white counties with mostly white officers will see white officers shooting more white suspects, along with any minority suspects who get into such confrontations.

The biggest conclusion being reached here doesn’t address the initial question very well. What it does do is establish the need for better recording of police shootings all across the country if the question is to be tackled in a serious fashion. Too many reports fail to accurately record the race of either the officer or the suspect. Other data is also lacking. I think we already knew this from previous studies of FBI reports, but data gathering and reporting from the local level needs to improve considerably before we can say anything definitive.