Study: Hiring More Black Cops Won’t Stop Fatal Police Shootings of Black Citizens

Tracy Jan, Washington Post, January 5, 2017

Amid the public outcry following the spate of high-profile fatal police shootings of black men, communities have called for police departments to diversify their ranks to better reflect the populations they serve.

From St. Paul, Minn., to Baton Rouge, Charlotte to Ferguson, Mo., activists, newspaper editorials and even the White House urged police departments to recruit more black and Hispanic officers to combat the police violence that disproportionately impacts communities of color.

But a new study finds that adding black police officers is not an effective strategy for reducing police shootings of black citizens in the vast majority of cities. In fact, hiring more black officers could lead to even more violent interactions with black citizens—at least until they make up more than 40 percent of the police force, according to researchers at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“Police organizations that have higher percentages of black officers are likely to have more police-involved homicides of black citizens, until they reach a critical mass,” said Sean Nicholson-Crotty, an author of the study who teaches public affairs at Indiana University.

The paper—“Will More Black Cops Matter?”—is slated to publish in Public Administration Review next month.

Explaining this counter-intuitive outcome may come down to a simple concept: the desire to be accepted as a member of a team. Black officers may feel they cannot advocate for the interest of black citizens in fear they might be “perceived as violating prevailing norms,” the authors wrote.

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He noted that the strongest predictor of how many black people police kill is how many white people are killed.

“Some police organizations simply use lethal force more than others,” Nicholson-Crotty said. “If the organizational culture is aggressive, you’d get stronger adherence” among minority officers.

That desire to belong plays out in the field with troubling consequences: Previous research has shown that black officers are more likely than their white colleagues to racially profile black drivers and disproportionately arrest black citizens. Some researchers have suggested that black officers may be tougher on black citizens because they are working to make black communities safer.

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Nicholson-Crotty and his colleagues analyzed police-involved homicides in America’s 100 largest cities, using data gathered by advocacy group Mapping Police Violence in 2014 and The Washington Post in 2015. {snip}

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Only when black officers are represented in high enough numbers—more than 40 percent—are they likely to represent the interests of black citizens, the Indiana University study concluded. At that threshold of representation, they may no longer fear repercussions from their organizations or scorn from their peers. 

“There is an inflection point at which black officers may become less likely to discriminate against black citizens and more inclined to assume a minority advocacy role or to become neutral enforcers of the law,” the researchers wrote.

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“We are not arguing that increasing minority representation can’t do other good things, but if you had to get as high as 40 percent, it’s unrealistic as a solution for this particular and really significant policy problem,” [Nicholson-Crotty] said, noting the widely documented challenges to recruiting and retaining minority officers.

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