AP Photo/Paul Holston

Several recent studies claim that police officers are more likely to shoot white civilians than black civilians; one new one claims the opposite. Who’s right?

Criminologists have debated for decades whether police carry racial biases into their work—particularly the kind that leads them to kill African Americans at disproportionate rates. Much of the research in this arena suggests that yes, on balance, police officers of all races do tend to perceive African Americans as more threatening than whites. The much-revered University of California Berkeley criminology professor Paul Takagi wrote as early as 1974 that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks,” in the Journal of Crime and Scholarly Justice.

However, a few recent studies upended the conventional wisdom on this by pointing to evidence that police might be more hesitant to use deadly force against black suspects, as opposed to white suspects. Such studies leveled up the stakes around the so-called “Ferguson Effect”: Not only were cops scaling back their policing to avoid potential public scrutiny, as this effect supposes, but they’re now being more racist towards white people, these new studies allege.

The sheer volume of news stories over the last few years showing police using force against African Americans—both armed and unarmed—certainly suggest otherwise. After all, those stories are what propelled the Black Lives Matter movement, which continues to push for more awareness about police violence. Those stories also prompted a group of researchers to dig a little deeper into the question of whether police are biased against minorities. In a report released today, “A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015,” criminal justice scholars from the University of Louisville and the University of South Carolina found an interesting way to ascertain how racial discrimination might play a role in police violence.

Led by University of Louisville criminal justice professor Justin Nix, the researchers used The Washington Post’s 2015 database on police use of deadly force to analyze the circumstances involving the 991 people killed by police that year. They set out to answer the following questions:

  • What were the individual, city, and agency characteristics of all fatal shootings by police in 2015?
  • Among those fatally shot, were minority civilians more likely than white civilians to have not been attacking the police or other civilians?
  • Among those fatally shot, were minority civilians more likely than white civilians to have been unarmed?

It’s been argued that what the Post’s 2015 database shows more than anything is that police killed more white civilians than black civilians that year—and that’s true: 495 white people were killed compared to 258 black people. Despite that, there were more unarmed black people killed by police (38) than there were unarmed white people (32). Moreover, on the question of whether the person was attacking the police when they were killed—Nix’s team found that white suspects were more often the attackers than were non-white suspects. This was found true even after controlling for factors such as the age of the victim or whether the victim had a mental illness.

Reads the report, published today in the Journal of Criminology & Public Policy:

These findings suggest evidence of implicit bias in real-world scenarios. In line with previous police shooting simulation studies (see Correll et al., 2002; Cox et al., 2014; Payne, 2001), it seems that officers may have been more likely to experience threat perception failures in fatal shootings that involved minority civilians. That is, officers subconsciously perceived minority civilians to have been a greater threat than they were (Fachner and Carter, 2015).

(Justin Nix)

The finding of implicit bias in “real-world scenarios” is important, and it’s what sets Nix’s study apart from the other studies that state such threat perception failures favor African Americans. Some of those controversial findings were led by Washington State University health science professors Lois James, Stephen M. James, and Bryan J. Vila at their university’s Simulated Hazardous Operational Tasks (SHOT) laboratory. There, police were able to interact in lifelike crime settings held in a kind of augmented reality environment. For this particular experiment, officers carried guns that blasted infra-red beams rather than bullets as they waded through virtual crime scenes—a robbery in progress, for example—where a simulated perpetrator poses a threat.   

The researchers picked groups of officers from the Spokane, Washington police department for these experiments—one conducted in 2014, and another in 2016 that tested whether fatigue also figures into racial discrepancies around police use of deadly force. Each officer went through dozens of scenarios in the SHOT lab wherein they were approached by a variety of perpetrators—some of them black, some white; some armed, some unarmed. The idea was to not only measure whether the officer was more likely to use his or her weapon for black suspects as opposed to white suspects, but also to measure how long it took for each officer to fire their weapon in each instance.

What they found sent a lot of people away scratching their heads: Officers took longer to shoot when armed black people popped up. Not only that, but officers were less likely to shoot the unarmed black suspects.

(Washington State University health science professors Lois James, Stephen M. James, and Bryan J. Vila)

Oddly, when these researchers had these officers take Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT), it surfaced evidence of “strong” racial bias among these police officers against African Americans. Despite this, the research team held on to their conclusion that “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.” In a paper they released last year, they summed this up as a “reverse racism effect,” where the presence of racial prejudice is a limiting factor in the decision to use deadly force against black suspects.

The conclusion triggered a stinging rebuke recently from a group of Portland State University sociologists, entitled “Impossibility of a “Reverse Racism” Effect”:

The authors’ conclusions simultaneously hold that (a) officers are not purposefully hesitating to shoot simulated Black subjects to influence the experiment’s political fallout (which preserves external validity); (b) officers are reasoning carefully about politics, which makes them hesitate to shoot simulated Black suspects (and that this also happens on the street); and (c) scoring highly on implicit bias against Black citizens has a reverse effect on their shooting decisions. This explanation is internally contradictory and fails to consider the results of similar research where officers seemed uninterested in protecting their departments from political fallout (Correll et al., 2002; Correll et al., 2007).

Another study, conducted by Harvard sociologist Roland Fryer last year, had similar findings. After examining over 1,300 police shootings in some of the nation’s largest cities, he found no evidence that police were more likely to shoot black suspects over whites. Wrote Fryer in the conclusion to his report: “It is plausible that racial differences in lower level uses of force are simply a distraction and movements such as Black Lives Matter should seek solutions within their own communities rather than changing the behaviors
of police and other external forces.”

Fryer’s conclusion also earned heavy criticism, even from some of his own Harvard colleagues. Nix points out that the ten police departments Fryer looked at might not be the best representative sample, given there are nearly 18,000 police departments around the country. In Nix’s report, he found that just over 41 percent of fatal police shootings took place in departments with more than 1,000 full-time police officers.

(Justin Nix)

“In our report, we looked at all fatal shootings across the country for a one-year period,” says Nix. “So I would guess that perhaps the reason why some of our findings might be at odds with [Fryer’s] is just in the nature of our samples that we drew.”

That points to the big problem with all of these studies: The researchers do not have a complete set of data to work with, because none exists. Nix’s team used the Washington Post database because it is one of the most comprehensive sources on the book, though it only lists fatalities. Only last year, the U.S. Justice Department agreed to start collecting data on police use-of-force.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the DOJ will follow through on this promise, and the political momentum behind police reform has shifted dramatically: The new Trump administration seems more concerned about collecting data on violence done by immigrants than on violence done by police. “Flawed data have limited the empirical study of police deadly use of force at the national level for far too long,” as Nix notes in his report. It’s likely that this barrier isn’t going anywhere soon.   

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