Law & the Courts

Does Race Play a Role When Police Kill Civilians?

(Elliot Burlingham/Dreamstime)
The crime data say no, not likely.

Last week saw two black men killed by police in highly troubling circumstances. These incidents deserve the scrutiny they are receiving, and they also repeat a deeper question that Americans have asked frequently of late: In general, when police kill civilians, how much of a factor is race?

It may make a difference sometimes. But discrimination probably isn’t driving much of the overall racial disparity in police shootings.

Let’s start with a fact everyone should be able to agree on: There is a disparity. Blacks are about 13 percent of the American population, yet according to data collected by the Washington Post in 2015 and 2016 thus far, they are about 27 percent of those killed by police. (For all the numbers in this article, I exclude any cases for which the race is “unknown.”)

But this isn’t the end of the discussion. Police are allowed, indeed often expected, to kill in certain circumstances — namely, when they reasonably think it is necessary to stop a threat to life or limb. People who pose such a threat are not necessarily representative of the entire population. So the question is, if not 13 percent, what baseline should we be comparing that 27 percent against?

One possible comparison group is murderers: According to the FBI, about half are black. Another is cop-killers, i.e., those who demonstrably presented a lethal threat to police: Again according to the FBI, about 43 percent are black. Still another is violent criminals in general: Most of these commit relatively minor offenses (such as simple assault, where there is no weapon or serious injury), but according to victimization surveys, about 24 percent are black. In other words, violent-crime rates roughly explain the gap — indeed, they over-explain it in the case of murderers and cop-killers, who are far more likely to be black than police-shooting victims are.

While highly suggestive, these data aren’t definitive. For one thing, I find the over-explaining curious. One theory I’ve floated is that whites might be more likely to commit “suicide-by-cop,” which would inflate the number of them shot by police without much affecting the comparison groups.

Far more detailed research is needed, with a careful accounting of the numerous factors that can legitimately influence an officer’s decision to pull the trigger. No, it’s not as simple as focusing on cases where the victim was unarmed, because unarmed doesn’t mean not dangerous. But several academics have already taken a look at the issue and have struggled to find evidence of racial bias.

Roland Fryer — among the nation’s leading economists studying racial matters — dug deeply into data from the NYPD and other sources, finding no evidence of bias when it came to lethal force. In fact, blacks were slightly less likely to be killed, which Fryer called “the most surprising result I have found in my entire career.” Sendhil Mullainathan, another leading racial-bias researcher, has noted — similar to the analysis above — that the percentage of arrestees who are black, as well as the percentage of offenders reported to police who are black, roughly matches the percentage of police-shooting victims who are black.

(One thing I don’t want to minimize, though it’s beyond the scope of this article, is that Fryer did find evidence of bias when it came to nonlethal force. A new report from the Center for Policing Equity suggests the same thing, though the results are weak at best when benchmarked to violent-crime arrests, as opposed to population numbers or total arrests.)

Researchers have also conducted experiments to see whether, in simulations, officers are more inclined to shoot black suspects than to shoot white suspects, perhaps out of a subtle, “implicit” bias. Early research suggested yes. But some newer, more realistic simulations have suggested the opposite: that officers avoid shooting black suspects. If these studies are correct, one possibility is that officers fear the fallout of shooting a black person more than that of shooting a white person, a theory buttressed by officer surveys. This could also help explain the fact that serious-violent-crime rates overpredict the racial gap in police shootings, as noted above.

This is a complicated topic, the nuances of which have not been fully explored. Shamefully, 2015 is the first year for which we even have a comprehensive count of these incidents, and those data come from media outlets such as the Post, not the government. The Centers for Disease Control and the FBI collect numbers on police shootings, but both efforts are embarrassingly incomplete.

The data we do have, though, strongly indicate that racial bias plays a minor role at best in this phenomenon.


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