Yes, there is racial bias in police shootings

I imagine many of our readers were shocked by a much-hyped study which purported to show lack of racial bias in police shootings.  You can read a very important critique of it here.

First, there is extensive evidence (including in the datasets Fryer considers) of large racial disparities in who gets stopped by police, even controlling for differences in crime rates (perhaps especially under policies like New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk”). Because of this, the “hit rate”—or the percent of times a stop ends with a confirmation of wrong-doing—is often higher for whites than blacks. Even if police pulled the trigger without “bias,” this disparity in stops would produce vastly unequal death rates.

This means that when we start the analysis by looking at encounters with police, we have already washed away some of the relevant racial bias. The unique data on police-citizen encounters Fryer relies on from Houston allows him in effect to “control” for the propensity to come into contact with the police in the first place. This is likely part of the reason he finds no evidence of bias in lethal interactions, while others have shown substantial racial disparities. For example, in a 2015 Plos One article, Cody T. Ross estimates that black Americans’ probability of being shot by the police is 3 times the rate for whites—and the disparity goes up to more than 20 in some counties. Similar community-level disparities that are unexplained by differences in crime rates emerge from a recent report from the Center for Policing Equity.

One thought on “Yes, there is racial bias in police shootings

  1. I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that the critique concludes that there is racial bias in police shootings. Her conclusion seems more restrained. (I’m guessing she didn’t write the title.) Here is her reply to a comment:

    “Either way, I think we should not conclude that this means there is “no bias” in police shootings since: a) People face unequal chances of police contact, net of their conduct, and b) The disproportionality of being shot at conditional on a police-citizen interaction is likely different for these kinds of “serious” interactions than for other contacts and so cannot be taken to represent all police actions.”

    Point “a” puts the racial bias in a different place. And of course there are lots of other things (like class) that may affect that as well. Point “b’ highlights that the study doesn’t look at killings that are the result of less “serious” interactions (e.g. the Castille and Garner cases). But so far as I know, that kind of study isn’t out there. We have a couple of high-profile anecdotal cases which may give reason to worry, but I’m sure she’d admit this doesn’t amount to sufficient evidence to support a general claim. Intuitively,one would think that “serious” interactions would produce the bulk of police shootings, given heightened tensions.

    Regardless, I think what she wants to question is whether the study proves what the author claims it does – especially in light of previous studies. Even still, the fact that the study suggests a significant negative correlation in serious interactions is staggering.

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