The role of race in police shootings

The recent deaths of two young black males Michael Brown and Tamir Rice at the hands of white police officers has brought the issue of racism in the police front and center in the national debate. Some of the discussions following my previous posts about the race factor in police shootings centered around whether race played a role in the likelihood of people getting shot, or whether the publicity given to these deaths was presenting a wrong image of the situation, and that anecdotal information was driving a false narrative. In other words, do we really know if, all other things being equal, it is more likely that a black person would be shot by police than white people.

Getting at the truth should be straightforward, at least in theory. For a start, it should be easy to first get some baseline data about the number of people shot and killed by police nationwide and then break down the victims by color to see if there is a disproportionate number of black people being shot. But incredibly, it turns out that the federal government does not keep a national database of police shootings, as I first learned back in October in this excellent piece of reporting by Samantha Bee in The Daily Show.

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(This clip aired on October 7, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)

The federal government can tell you how many bicycles were stolen, how many houses were broken into, and how many bullets were fired by police nationwide because local police departments are required to file this information with them but is curiously hesitant to require police departments around the country to report data on how many people get shot and who they are. It is as if they are scared about what the data might reveal. I wonder why.

In the absence of a national database, researchers have had to look at select cities and there the results do show disproportionate shootings by race

In 2007, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter investigated fatal police shootings in 10 major cities, and found that there were a disproportionately high number of African Americans among police shooting victims in every one, particularly in New York, San Diego, and Las Vegas.

In Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white. One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities. Although weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases, the NAACP found, no officers were charged.

When you look at the racial breakdown of New Yorkers, black people are disproportionately represented among those targeted as criminal shooting suspects, firearms arrestees, and those fired upon or struck by police gunfire.

This does not mean of course that white people are not shot and abused by police as well. As I have said, the ultimate cause may well be an increasingly authoritarian state arrayed against an increasingly restive poor population, and that race factors in because police are disproportionately white and the poor are disproportionately black. We need to look at the rates at which people are shot.

In a country that is about 63 percent white and 12 percent black, the probability that an African-American will die in a confrontation with police is much higher than for whites.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps data on fatal injuries from 1999 to 2011 and one category is homicides by legal intervention. The term “legal intervention” covers any situation when a person dies at the hands of anyone authorized to use deadly force in the line of duty.

Over the span of more than a decade, 2,151 whites died by being shot by police compared to 1,130 blacks. In that respect, Medved is correct.

However, Brian Forst, a professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, said this difference is predictable.

“More whites are killed by the police than blacks primarily because whites outnumber blacks in the general population by more than five to one,” Forst said.

Rather than comparing the raw numbers, you can look at the likelihood that a person will die due to “legal intervention” in the same way you might look at the chance a person will die in a car accident or a disease like lung cancer. When you do that, the numbers flip.

A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that the death rate due to legal intervention was more than three times higher for blacks than for whites in the period from 1988 to 1997.

But some might argue that more blacks are shot not because they are black but because they are more likely to be involved in crime, and that short of actual determination of racial bias on the part of police, we cannot say that the race of the victim was a precipitating factor in the shootings. But studies using simulations show that such a race bias does exist and that both ordinary people and police are quicker to pull the trigger if the targets are black than if they are white.

But racial bias also factors into officers’ split-second decision to shoot a suspect.

Social science research shows that, in video simulations, people are more likely to shoot black men. The participants—often undergraduate students, both black and white—play a simulation where they press “shoot” if they think the white or black suspect holds a gun. Consistently, psychologists have found the students more likely to shoot the unarmed black person over an unarmed white person.

For example, a study published in 2002 from the University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Chicago found that white undergraduates had higher error rates when it came to unarmed African American suspects (1.45 per 20 trials compared to 1.23 for unarmed white suspects).

Police officers who play the simulations have similar results. In a 2005 study from Florida State University researchers, a mostly white, mostly male group of officers in Florida were statistically more likely to let armed white suspects slip while shooting unarmed black suspects instead.

Given all this, it would be disingenuous to argue that race does not play a role in the way that police react to situations and the way that we, the general public, react to these tragedies.


  1. says

    In other words, do we really know if, all other things being equal…

    Stop right there — you’re talking about a fantasy world. Out here in the real world, all other things are NOT equal. That’s how people are able to justify or excuse policies that are clearly racist in their observable effect: they’re not really discriminating against black people, “per se,” they’re discriminating against people who have been disadvantaged by past racist policies, who just happen to be mostly nonwhite…but it’s not because of their race, it’s because of some other inequality that was created by someone else, so it’s not really racist, it’s perfectly rational if you look at the abstract numbers instead of a bunch of isolated anecdotes, and it’s not our fault if it just happens to look racist when the biased liberal media squints at it the wrong way blah blah blah…

  2. doublereed says

    @1 Raging Bee

    But the whole point of him asking that question is to give the answer, which is a “yes.” As in, even in that fantasy world, it still doesn’t work.

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