yes, there is racial “bias” in police shootings

The following is a guest post by Michelle Phelps.

A new study by Harvard Economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. hit The Upshot column at the New York Times today, with “surprising new evidence” that there is no racial bias in who gets shot by the police. The study is currently posted as a working paper with NBER, so it has not yet received peer-review or been published. As we saw last week with The Upshot column by Justin Wolfers on gender bias in clock-stopping policies (which was heavily critiqued), such research findings should be treated as provisional. (I’m also putting aside the fact that the study relies primarily on police reports, which in several cases we have reason to doubt.) However, even if we take the paper at face value, there is strong reason to question the conclusion of “no bias” in police shootings.

The paper is an ambitious account of racial differences in various kinds of use of force by police, using data from jurisdictions across the country. Fryer relies on several datasets to make his case, including data on stop-and-frisk stops in New York City; a survey of citizens’ interactions with police; event summaries from incidents where police fired their weapons in Austin, Dallas, Houston, several Florida counties, and Los Angeles county; and arrest reports from police-civilian interactions that involve an arrest for a serious, violent crime, including attempted murder of police, aggravated assault, or resisting arrest in Houston.

The results show extensive disparities in officers’ use of force in non-lethal situations, even controlling for officers’ reports of victims’ behavior during the interaction. Similar community-level disparities that are unexplained by differences in crime rates emerge from a recent report from the Center for Policing Equity. Simply put, police officers are much more likely to “put hands on” black and Hispanic civilians as compared to their white counterparts, slapping, grabbing, and pushing them violently into walls and the ground. On this point, Fryer, the Times reporters, and I are all in complete agreement.

Where we diverge is the interpretation of the data on racial differences in who gets shot by the police. The New York Times article reports, “In the tense moments when a shooting may occur, are police officers more likely to fire if the suspect is black?” The answer, according to Fryer, is no. His estimates (which have large standard errors) suggest that there is no difference by race in serious police-civilian encounters (both before and after controlling for suspect and officer characteristics). In fact, the point estimates are negative, suggesting that if anything whites face a higher chance of being shot at in these interactions (although the confidence interval includes zero).

Should we conclude then that there is “no bias” in police shootings? I don’t think so—for a couple of reasons. First, there is extensive evidence (including in the datasets Fryer considers) of large racial disparities in who gets stopped by police, even controlling for differences in crime rates (perhaps especially under policies like New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk”). Because of this, the “hit rate”—or the percent of times a stop ends with a confirmation of wrong-doing—is often higher for whites than blacks. Even if police pulled the trigger without “bias,” this disparity in stops would produce vastly unequal death rates.

This means that when we start the analysis by looking at encounters with police, we have already washed away some of the relevant racial bias. The unique data on police-citizen encounters Fryer relies on from Houston allows him in effect to “control” for the propensity to come into contact with the police in the first place. This is likely part of the reason he finds no evidence of bias in lethal interactions, while others have shown substantial racial disparities. For example, in a 2015 Plos One article, Cody T. Ross estimates that black Americans’ probability of being shot by the police is 3 times the rate for whites—and the disparity goes up to more than 20 in some counties.

Further, we know that racial disparities in police encounters increase for more minor stops. For example, in their book Pulled Over, Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald P. Haider-Markel show that there are no disparities in police stops for unambiguous traffic safety stops (e.g. running a stop sign), but for investigatory stops, where police pull over drivers deemed “suspicious,” black drivers were nearly three times more likely to be stopped and five times more likely to have their cars searched. It is these kinds of everyday shake-downs, or “driving while black,” that fuel the racial policing divide. And it is when these kinds of interactions turn deadly—selling loose cigarettes [Eric Garner], sitting in a subway station [Oscar Grant], selling CDs [Alton Sterling]—that the public fury over policing injustices ignites.

Thus, to rigorously test the hypothesis of whether black Americans are more likely to be killed by police, we need to consider both unequal rates of police encounters and the outcomes of those interactions. Given the deep disparities in low-level contacts with the police, evaluating the risk of these encounters turning lethal seems particularly important. This is a different question than the one Fryer answers with data on serious arrest incidents, which we would expect to show smaller racial disparities. Indeed, evidence from FBI reports of police shootings suggest that when the initial interaction is less serious (e.g. when the suspect has no weapon), racial disparities are the greatest. In Ross’ study, the race divide was so large that the rates of police shootings were higher for unarmed black suspects than armed white suspects.[1]

This debate highlights the complexities of defining “bias.” What do we control for? Jerome Miller eloquently wrote of the juvenile system that each stage of criminal justice processing is a “written apologia … for what was about to happen at the next” (57). If police stop black Americans more often, they will undoubtedly be arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts. Then, voila, those higher arrest rates can be used as evidence of inherent criminality and marshalled to justify disparities in treatment by the criminal justice system.

How too do we “control” for the persistent housing disparities, driven by the legacies and continued force of racism, which push black Americans into (and next door to) neighborhoods with rates of poverty higher than almost any white Americans experience? As with so many areas of social inequality, commentators want to highlight individual racists—identifying which cops show racial prejudice (and, on the other side, which victims “deserved” to be shot)—instead of the broader structural forces shaping unequal outcomes.

All of these forces produce racialized differences in the experience of policing. As Fryer and the Times points out, most police interactions (thankfully) do not end with a shooting. This means that even when stops are plentiful, analyzing racial disparities in this rare outcome is difficult. Yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying to analyze when and where various kinds of bias influence policing outcomes. As with research on sentencing outcomes, scholars studying the police would benefit from using the cumulative disadvantage framework, examining how these disparities create cascade effects that ultimately end with tragically high death rates for young black men.

In the second police shooting to flood the news this week, Philando Castile, a young black man, was shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota (my home state) after being pulled over.[2] His death was broadcast in real-time by his girlfriend, who was in the car along with her 4 year old daughter. The video sparked a new round of #BlackLivesMatter protests in the Twin Cities and beyond. Philando Castile was stopped by the police more than 52 times (!) in the years before his untimely death and owed the courts more than $6,000 for various fines and feeds for miscellaneous petty violations. Rather than the narrow question of individual-level “bias” in isolated cases of officer shootings, it is these deep race (and class) inequities—in who gets stopped by the police and how they are treated by the justice system—that should command our attention.

Michelle Phelps is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Update/Correction: This post initially noted that the Policing Equity report found racial disparities in lethal use of force. That was incorrect. The study by Policing Equity did not have a sufficient number of cases of lethal shootings to draw firm conclusions. They did find race differences in for non-lethal use of force. For more on that report and Fryer’s findings, see this Buzzfeed story.

[1] Ross finds that the black-white divide in the probability of being shot is larger for suspects who were unarmed (probability ratio of 3.5) verses armed (probability ratio of 2.9), but the confidence intervals overlap. In contrast, Fryer’s study finds that there is no difference between the percent of black verses white suspects that were armed among those shot at by police.

[2] In the video of his death, his girlfriend reports that they were ostensibly pulled over for a broken taillight. Some media outlets are reporting that the reason for the stop given over the police broadcast was that the Castile looked like a recent robbery suspect “because of the wide set nose.”

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

47 thoughts on “yes, there is racial “bias” in police shootings”

  1. To get your argument straight in my mind: you don’t disagree with the finding that, net of force being used, there is no racial difference in whether the force is lethal. But you are arguing that this does not prove there is “no bias” because there is a strong bias in whether there is a stop at all and, if there is a stop, in whether force is used. And further that the racial difference in proportion of those killed who were unarmed suggests that these selection factors led the Whites who experienced force to be more likely to be armed and in some sense warranting a lethal response than Blacks who experienced force. Is that the correct summary? If yes, I agree. I should look at the Fryer study itself. Is there any control for things like why the person was stopped or whether they had a weapon?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi olderwoman. Thanks for reading (I really appreciate all of your public work on CJS issues!).

      To boil down the piece, I agree that Fryer shows evidence that in his Houston sample of serious police-citizen interactions, there’s no evidence that blacks are more likely to be shot at conditional on that interaction happening. (Using a variety of other data sources, Fryer shows that there is evidence of disproportion in non-lethal use of force conditional on a stop taking place — a finding that is consistent with the existing literature. He also finds in this piece of the analysis that police are more likely to draw their guns at citizens for all kinds of stops and arrests. He doesn’t analyze shootings with this same data — I believe because it’s such a rare event that he has to turn to other sources for adequate number of cases although this isn’t explicit.) However, I am unsure whether this finding about racial neutrality in shootings, conditional on serious police-citizen interactions, would hold up in other studies, since it does contradict *some* of the literature (see footnote #1). Either way, I think we should not conclude that this means there is “no bias” in police shootings since: a) People face unequal chances of police contact, net of their conduct, and b) The disproportionality of being shot at conditional on a police-citizen interaction is likely different for these kinds of “serious” interactions than for other contacts and so cannot be taken to represent all police actions.

      I think the full piece is worth reading — it is, like I say, a unique and interesting take on both the data and the broader implications (esp. if you enjoy seeing the econ vs. soc worldview play out).

      Liked by 3 people

      1. The piece for me confirms long-standing methodological critiques of Bayesian approaches to complex social issues. It’s not at all clear to me why we should care about the decision to shoot *conditional* on the decision to draw a gun. This seems to a quintessential distinction-without-a-difference.

        Liked by 5 people

  2. It is hard for me to imagine a Police Department that condones policies of stopping a car because the cop thinks an occupant might resemble a holdup perp. Pretty clear that “a wide-set nose” would justify stopping a large fraction of drivers in many places, and as the article notes, such a flimsy reason is highly likely to escalate into tensions over perceived bias.

    All this assumes that the cop is unbiased. I don’t know anybody, myself included, who has no implicit bias, who automatically makes no guesses based on race.

    Commentators rightly call out police for unfair, discriminatory or outright racist actions. But that leaves the “a few bad eggs” excuse intact, when it’s the mayors’ contracts with their Chiefs, the union agreements negotiated by the cities’ councils, even the budgets set by the Councils or even by direct vote, that set the stage for all this.

    Yesterday, I ran into (literally, at the end of my jog!) an ad-hoc meeting between some of Oakland’s cops and some citizens concerned about recent violence. The cops were obviously as concerned as the people about doing the right thing, if perhaps not with the PR training to start each answer with, “I hear you.” It was so obvious how hard it is for them, and all of us, to deal with situations that are actually set in motion by bigger forces.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. I think that’s a very interesting point, WaltFrench. The “macro” piece of this police violence discussion, about municipal politics that have effectively turned police departments into collection agencies, has been largely confined to the wonkiest reaches of the internet. The confluence of the “broken windows” approach to policing (which has become ubiquitous) and the widespread municipal hunger for the revenue generated by fines and fees has created all kinds of perverse incentives for cities — especially small “inner-ring” suburbs — to maximize police interactions that effectively prey on the least politically powerful citizens.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. >>”It is these kinds of everyday shake-downs, or “driving while black,” that fuel the racial policing divide. And it is when these kinds of interactions turn deadly—selling loose cigarettes [Eric Garner], sitting in a subway station [Oscar Grant], selling CDs [Alton Sterling]—that the public fury over policing injustices ignites.”<<

    Are you deliberately trying to mislead people? Alton Sterling encountered the police because he pulled a gun on a homeless man, not for selling CDs. Oscar Grant encountered the police because he was involved in a drunken brawl on a train, not for sitting in a subway station.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I think this quest to identify why these victims “deserved” what they got is deeply flawed. You can pick apart individual cases to find evidence that the person did something wrong, but in nearly every case, none of these allegations are serious enough to justify their death in a sane world. What matters is the broader pattern, not the specifics of any isolated event.

      Further, regardless of what happened on the ground in any of these (or many more) cases (which neither you or I can ever fully know), the public perception is that *taken as a group* these victims did little to deserve their death and in most cases shouldn’t have drawn the attention of the police in the first place. And that it really important for police legitimacy–which in turn shapes crime patterns and police-citizen interactions.

      Liked by 9 people

      1. There’s a pretty big difference between correcting statements about why Sterling and Grant were initially contacted by the police and saying that they deserved to be killed.

        Well-publicized individual events play a large part in making up the broader, macro view of police – citizen interactions. You’re adding to the public view that the police are just walking up to African Americans who haven’t done anything (just “sitting in a subway station”) and killing them by repeating these things, which you claim shape police – citizen interactions. If these facts was true it would be fine, but they aren’t. You are, by your own admission, helping to shape police – citizen interactions by putting forth a false narrative.

        Again, this isn’t saying that they deserved to die (what kind of person thinks getting into a fight on a subway is justification for being shot by the police?). It’s just trying to get the facts straight and letting reality form our narrative.

        Liked by 7 people

      2. When you spend nine months carrying each of your children and decades raising them, you treasure each life – so what should be true is that each life matters. Even he loves of five murdered policemen. If I look at it from this perspective, I have to agree that ‘these victims did little to deserve their death.’ And no victim’s mother should have to outlive her child.
        But if anything is to be done victims should not be turned into saints, which seems to be the standard pattern in the US. Holding a gun on a homeless person isn’t selling CDs. Pointing a gun at police isn’t holding a sandwich.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that in-depth analysis. But it raises issues far beyond the scope of a newspaper article.

      It also doesn’t touch what I consider the main finding of the Fryer paper (which people who are comfortable with econometrics or other statistical research can download free from NBER). The first finding in the paper’s abstract is, “blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police.”

      This finding is important, and to my mind a key reason why blacks fear the police. Interactions are very likely to escalate to violence. And although police also can be harmed from that violence, they are much less likely to suffer from it.

      The surprise finding of no difference in shootings has two important qualifications, also in the paper. First, it is conditioned on the fact that police stop blacks disproportionately, often in situations where it is much less likely they have seen a crime committed. Equal shooting from unequal causes is not unbiased shooting. Second, the paper, besides the expression of surprise from the author, notes very low confidence on the fatality information. Remember that “absence of proof is not proof of absence” and that the author is not claiming that Blacks are hyping the whole fatality issue.

      Some fair amount of my professional career involved performing, funding and using social science research. Surprising findings are very important, but often don’t stand up to further scrutiny. Also, the press, which can’t make decent stories out of complex associations and data, almost always over-simplify findings until they’re just wrong.

      The Fryer paper is a good contribution to this terribly important social issue. We need more like it, and we need to review, report and interpret it more carefully.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a very fair summery of things. I find studies to be “iffy” and don’t change that simply because the study may be in my favor or current narrative. Nevertheless, I found this intriguing. I listened to this on google translate. Good post and credibility.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. There is no bias in Miami Dade County. The cops shoot everyone and an umbrella, well doncha know, looks just like an AK47. Seems “bad shootings” never reach level of independent investigation.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Its like natural for a human to response with aggression when the the hostile is somewhat different here its white police being different with back peoples already have their mind set as black are rough to handle they are dangerous and so on the list goes.. This bias dont happen if the hostile is white and because the hostile himself is playing safe (his sixth sense is not shattered) whereas the black hostile will be scared enough as he have being aware of the fact of the same topic we are talking this will lead to the tendency of actions (any kind of to save own ass ).. i hope my words are understandable thanks.. (no hard feelings)

    Liked by 5 people

  7. One most important point beyond the specific police encounter with black citizens that I have not seen discussed is the total social patterns between blacks and whites. Blacks and other minority groups doubtlessly have far more difficulties in obtaining legal ways of earning a living, finding decent and manageable housing and even encountering whites in normal polite social encounters. The unemployment rates of blacks is far higher than whites through no reason than racial prejudice. If black people simply cannot manage the normal necessities of sustenance legally it is no surprise that when illegal offerings appear they must accept them out of basic necessity. This is a far larger and difficult pattern than police behavior and all of society, not just the police, are responsible.

    Liked by 6 people

  8. Okay, I’d say the biggest problem is the narratives we get from the police and from bystanders. We don’t chose our police force so I wonder how sure we’re that they’re trustworthy. We hope they are, we try to convince ourselves that they’re because if they aren’t that would be really disturbing.
    From various videos I’ve seen, I notice that once the verbally demands for justification or delays even for just a bit the cops begin crying resistance and sometimes little to no action or even complying could still lead to getting pulled out and beating because of resistance.
    Wasn’t there the case where the car moved forward after the victim was shot and the cop falsely stated in the report that he thought he was about to be run over but on the other hand when the video was released it was a lie. That alone is crime.
    I do agree with the fact that cops make unnecessary arrests mostly when a victim is black which in turn increases the number of blacks that have committed a crime which also justifies the high rate at which blacks are stopped. This also would be put in their record also affecting their opportunities.
    Most of these cases traffic stops result from broken tail lights, failing to signal, and other regular traffic defaults but then the cops seem to always want to escalate the issue, asking someone to stop smoking and pulling her out for refusing… All this has great effect on this study.
    I just want to add that concerning this topic if the police force wasn’t protecting it’s defaulter there would be no reason the suspect the presence of bias among the cops. But for them to be supported and backed after perpetrating some heinous acts is disappointing.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think that your comment is spot on, Xechos. We are dealing with a paradigm of dominance. That can be manifested in any police/community interaction – I know that the teens in the my old neighborhood, one of the wealthiest in the country, complained that the cops were abusive. It’s a well understood progression: tell a group of people that they have to maintain absolute control over a self-determining population, and they very rapidly become psychopathic. Couple that basic truth of policing to a social milieu, as in race-divided communities with whites seeking to maintain political dominance, and we have an incendiary mix. Rather than pushing back on the police, the social elite will urge them on.

      I saw the dynamic of failed dominance so immediately in the Sandra Bland case, with the officer slowly going further and further off the rails as she resisted his orders. It was most evident in his voice, which took on a more and more desperate tone as the interaction evolved.

      What is worse is that our police services are often populated by risk-takers. They interact frequently with civilians of similar dispositions. Given the disparity in power between the parties, the police typically come out on top. Unfortunately the biological side-effect is to increase testosterone levels, which ramps up aggression. This is a vicious cycle that can spin completely out of control unless the aggressor is occasionally taken down a peg or two. I don’t know if this is recognized in police practices.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s true most of the people that end up dead like to stand up for their right, and the cops themselves like to hold their ground but most times the civilian ends up hurt because the power is avaliable to the police.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And sometimes not even for holding their ground. Testosterone does some wild things to people, and adrenaline degrades the parts of our brain that reason. So we have situations in which a cripple that required crutches to walk was thrown to the ground, losing his crutches, and then beat up when he said “I can’t” to the demand that he walk to the police car. You go far enough down the road to testosterone and adrenaline addiction, and violence becomes the only tool that can be used to induce compliance in others. If police departments don’t monitor the levels of these natural drugs in their officers, they should.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Hello there. I really appreciate this post because it seeks to approach the very serious issue of police brutality in a statistical sense, instead of following clipped videos on FB and the anger that has manifested on every social media platform.

    In my blog post, “Black&Blue: How Our Nation Can Change,” I make an effort to provide a commentary on possible solutions for how we can prevent future violence on all fronts. As the daughter of minority police officers, I stand in the middle of both fronts and this dichotomy has taught me lessons that I wish to share with all of you.

    Please take a look:

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This is a well written post and I feel that it includes all the points that I wish to say about the issue. I am absolutely disgusted by all the racial segregation and it is one thing to be bias towards a person but showing these feelings with a bullet is preposterous.
    Thank you for writing this for everyone to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I enjoyed reading this article because I feel like the conversations have to be had. Segregation in 2016 is almost something I can’t believe we are still talking about. I feel like it is not a valid argument for people to think that behavior and conduct equal the value of your life. Many people have children and we all know that children are not big on complying with authority. I would hope that they shouldn’t be killed or harmed because of that so we have to extend that view into the world. I trust the police to be highly trained and skilled individuals who value everyone’s life. We have to take responsibility for our actions however our officials need to make sure they are as well. Let’s explore valid suggestions of change, have positive conversations, hold people accountable and then we can really see some true change.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. If that’s the case. How come no little white kids are accidentally killed by the police. How come white woman aren’t accidentally killed by the police. Or better yet how come teenaged white boy’s are never killed by accident of the police ?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “Getting stopped” is different than “getting shot.” Yes, greater likelihood of getting stopped means that you have more likelihood of getting shot **just because you’re stopped more often.** BUT, that’s not what Fryer was discussing AND he made that clear.

    He clearly said that, simply comparing cases once they got to a point of shooting, there was no difference.

    Per left-liberal commenter Doug Henwood, I think in some cases of critiques, we’re seeing “white liberal guilt” partially at work. Take the evidence as it stands and deal with it from there. And as a left-liberal of sorts myself, I “get” what Doug means.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I think a factor that is lost in all this conversation is that both people in this situation are afraid. Being African American I have been writing a series on race relations. My next blog deals with what it feels like growing up in fear. Every time a cop stops me which is rare my heart is racing and I am gripped with fear. In that state of mind you act jumpy. Just food for thought.

    Liked by 2 people

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