Academic Research on Police Shootings and Race

Heather Mac Donald, Washington Post, July 19, 2016

I am blogging about findings from my new book, “The War on Cops,” this week, following a series of assassinations and attempted assassinations of police officers. Yesterday, I argued that police shootings and other police activity do not evidence officer bias, when crime rates are taken into account. Today, I will discuss the latest academic research on the issue of police shootings and race.

The most sophisticated lab study of police shoot/don’t-shoot decisions to date, published this year in Criminology and Public Policy, undercuts the Black Lives Matter narrative about trigger-happy, racist cops. Washington State University researcher Lois James put 80 officers from the Spokane, Wash., police department in highly realistic video simulators of street scenarios. Officers were confronted with potentially armed suspects identical in all aspects, including body language and weapon, except for their race. The test subjects were not told the purpose of the research, which was conducted between August 2012 and November 2013, before the issue of race in policing reached the fever pitch of prominence that it possesses today.

The officers were three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects and took significantly longer to decide to shoot armed black suspects than armed white suspects. James hypothesized that officers were second-guessing themselves when confronting black suspects, due to their awareness of the potential negative repercussions of shooting a black suspect. James’s finding that participants, in her words, “displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects” in their shooting decisions replicated the results of two previous studies she has run on shoot/don’t-shoot decisions.

James’s work anticipated a much-discussed working paper by Harvard economist Roland Fryer. Fryer found that police officers in Houston were nearly 24 percent less likely to shoot blacks than whites (p. 50); he concluded that there was no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings there. In a data set comprising officer shootings from Dallas, Austin, Houston, Los Angeles and six Florida counties, he found that officers were 47 percent less likely to discharge their weapon without first being attacked if the suspect was black than if the suspect was white (p. 25), and that black and white victims of police shootings were equally likely to have been armed.

(Fryer also found that blacks in New York City were more likely than whites to have non-lethal force used against them during pedestrian stops. But the cursory forms filled out by officers after a stop do not convey the intensity or exact details of suspect resistance. Blacks were more likely to have non-lethal force used against them when “officers report perfect compliance” by the stop subject (p. 6, p. 31), writes Fryer. The stop forms have no field for reporting “perfect compliance,” however, but only contain fields for notating suspect resistance. An officer’s oversight in not checking the boxes regarding suspect behavior is not necessarily tantamount to affirmatively “reporting perfect compliance.”)

Several other recent studies complicate the favored media meme of white cops oppressing black subjects. A March 2015 study of the Philadelphia Police Department by the Justice Department found that black and Hispanic officers were more likely than white officers to shoot unarmed black individuals under the mistaken belief that those individuals were armed.

A study by the former acting director of the National Institute of Justice found that black officers in the New York Police Department were 3.3 times more likely than white officers to use their gun at shooting scenes. {snip}

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