The truth behind racial disparities in fatal police shootings
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Reports of racially motivated, fatal shootings by police officers have garnered extensive public attention and sparked activism across the U.S. New research reveals findings that flip many of these reports on their heads—white police officers are not more likely to shoot minority citizens than non-white officers.
What the researchers say: “Until now, there's never been a systematic, nationwide study to determine the characteristics of police involved in fatal officer-involved shootings,” said the lead author. “There are so many examples of people saying that when black citizens are shot by police, it's white officers shooting them. In fact, our findings show no support for the idea that white officers are biased in shooting black citizens.”
The findings—published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—are based on an independent database the research team created that catalogued each police shooting from 2015. The team contacted every police department that had a fatal police shooting to get the race, sex and years of experience for every officer involved in each incident. The team also leveraged data from police shooting databases by The Washington Post and The Guardian.
“We found that the race of the officer doesn't matter when it comes to predicting whether black or white citizens are shot,” the researchers said. “If anything, black officers are more likely to shoot black citizens, but this is because black officers are drawn from the same population that they police. So, the more black citizens in a community, the more black police officers there are.”
The data show that it's not racial bias on behalf of white officers relative to black officers when it comes to fatal shootings, and that's good news. The bad news is that internal policy changes, such as diversifying police forces, may not reduce shootings of minority citizens.
“Many people ask whether black or white citizens are more likely to be shot and why. We found that crime rates are the driving force behind fatal shootings,” the lead author said. “Our data show that the rate of crime by each racial group predicts the likelihood of citizens from that racial group being shot. If you live in a county that has a lot of white people committing crimes, white people are more likely to be shot. If you live in a county that has a lot of black people committing crimes, black people are more likely to be shot. It is the best predictor we have of fatal police shootings.”
The vast majority—between 90% and 95%--of the civilians shot by officers were actively attacking police or other citizens when they were shot. Ninety percent also were armed with a weapon when they were shot. The horrific cases of accidental shootings, like mistaking a cell phone for a gun, are rare, the researchers said.
"We hear about the really horrendous and tragic cases of police shootings for a reason: they're awful cases, they have major implications for police-community relations and so they should get attention,” they added. “But, this ends up skewing perceptions about police shootings and leads people to believe that all fatal shootings are similar to the ones we hear about. That's just not the case.”
One thing that was surprising, at least to me, was the number of mental health cases that resulted in fatal officer shootings.
Nearly 50 percent of all fatal shootings involving white civilians were because of mental health; it also accounted for nearly 20% of black civilians and 30% of Hispanics. These included two types of mental health cases: the first was “suicide by cop,” in which civilians intentionally antagonize the police because they want an officer to kill themselves; the second was a result of mental disorders, such as when a civilian is suffering from schizophrenia and poses a threat to officers.
Although white officers are not more likely than black officers to shoot black citizens when looking at all fatal shootings, the data are too uncertain to draw firm conclusions once different subtypes of shootings, such as shootings of unarmed citizens, are examined. This is because these types of shootings are too rare for strong conclusions to be drawn.
So, what? The important thing about this study is that it throws great doubt on assumptions many have held about the “racial bias” of U.S. police officers. That there is considerable racial bias in the U.S. which is being used by politicians for their own purposes is undoubtedly true. However, it’s important to concentrate on the real problems rather than focus on ones which are proven to be not true.
I fear that DT and others will seize on this study to claim overall vindication.
The point about science—whether it’s physical or social—is that it should be based on verifiable facts and no doubt other studies will confirm, or otherwise, this finding.
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