White police officers are not more likely to shoot minority citizens, says new study debunking popular view

According to researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Maryland, white police officers are not more likely to shoot minority citizens than black or Hispanic officers


                            White police officers are not more likely to shoot minority citizens, says new study debunking popular view

Every time a person of color is fatally shot in the US, it raises a major question as to whether black Americans are more likely to be shot by white officers, and if the latter are responsible for a disproportionate amount of fatal shootings of minority citizens.

Now, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Maryland have an answer to that big question. 

According to them, white police officers are not more likely to shoot minority citizens than black or Hispanic officers. 

Until now, federal databases on officers involved in fatal shootings did not exist. Hence, to answer the question if black citizens are more likely to be shot by white officers, the researchers - David Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, along with colleagues at Michigan State University - spent over 1,500 hours creating the first comprehensive national database of fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) in the US in 2015. It includes 917 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers in 2015 from over 650 different police departments. The analysis, which is based on this database, shows that white police officers are not more likely to shoot minorities citizens than non-white officers. The researchers state that their findings show no support for the idea that white officers are biased in shooting black citizens.

“There is widespread concern about racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings and that these disparities reflect discrimination by white officers. Existing databases of fatal shootings lack information about officers, and past analytic approaches have made it difficult to assess the contributions of factors like crime. We create a comprehensive database of officers involved in fatal shootings during 2015 and predict victim race from civilian, officer, and county characteristics. We find no evidence of anti-black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and white officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-white officers,” says the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

It adds, “It's not our goal to argue that there are no racial disparities in all policing outcomes. However, our data do not support the idea that, at the national level, white officers are more responsible for fatal shootings of minority civilians.”

The researchers did not find any evidence of anti-black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and they say that white officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-white officers. (Getty Images)

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 used data from the police shooting databases by The Washington Post and The Guardian. They found that the race of the officer did not matter when it came to predicting whether black or white citizens are shot. 

“The characteristics of police officers who shoot civilians closely reflect the pool of all police officers. Nationwide, 73% of all police officers are white, 12% are Hispanic, and 12% are black. By comparison, 79% of officers involved in shootings in 2015 were white, 12% were Hispanic, and 6% were black. Of those civilians fatally shot, 55% were white, 27% were black, and 19% were Hispanic,” says the study. 

Characteristics of civilians fatally shot by the police in 2015, according to the study.

The researchers explain that if fatal shootings of minority citizens are due to a bias of white officers, then if a white officer is involved in the shooting, the person fatally shot is more likely to be black or Hispanic. The analysis, say the researchers, clearly shows that this is not the case. 

Diversity in hirings unlikely to reduce shootings of minority citizens

The researchers say while the good news is that it is not racial bias that leads to white officers shooting minorities, the bad news is internal policy changes, such as diversifying police forces, may not reduce shootings of minority citizens. The reason is that the rate of crime by each racial group predicts the likelihood of citizens from that racial group being shot. The study shows as the percentage of black or Hispanic officers increased, the likelihood that a civilian fatally shot was black or Hispanic (respectively) also increased. “Race-specific violent crime strongly predicted the race of a civilian fatally shot by police,” says the paper.

For instance, if a person lives in a county that has a lot of white people committing crimes, white people are more likely to be shot; if a person lives in a county that has a lot of black people committing crimes, black people are more likely to be shot. 

“In counties where whites committed a higher percentage of homicides, a person fatally shot by the police was 3.5 times more likely to be white. In counties where blacks committed a higher percentage of violent crime, a person fatally shot by the police was 3.7 times more likely to be black. And in counties where Hispanics committed a higher percentage of violent crime, a person fatally shot by the police was 3.3 times more likely to be Hispanic,” says the analysis. It adds, “This does not mean that black or Hispanic officers are biased in their shooting decisions. The fact that black and Hispanic civilians were more likely to be shot by same-race officers was largely explained by similarities between officer and county demographics.”

Violent crime rates, the biggest predictor of victims' race

The team of researchers found that violent crime rates are the driving force behind fatal 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. Further, 90% were armed with a weapon when they were shot.

The tragic cases of accidental shootings, like mistaking a cellphone for a gun, are rare, says the study. 

The findings, according to the researchers, suggest that reducing disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings will require identifying and changing the socio-historical factors that lead civilians to commit violent crime.

“We encourage federal agencies to enforce policies that require recording information about the civilians and officers in FOIS to better understand the relationship between civilian race and police use of force,” they recommend. 

Another striking finding was the number of mental health cases that resulted in fatal officer shootings.

“Nearly 50% 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,” says the study. 

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