Poverty Explains Racial Bias in Police Shootings

Statistics show that Black US citizens are disproportionally more likely to be killed by police than White US citizens. Cesario, Johnson, and Terrill (2019) estimated that the odds of being killed by police are 2.5 times higher for Black citizens than for White citizens. To my knowledge, no social scientist has disputed this statistical fact.

However, social scientists disagree about the explanation for this finding. Some social scientists argue that racial bias is at least a contributing factor to the disparity in police killings. Others, deny that racial bias is a factor and point out that Black citizens are killed in proportion to their involvement in crime.

Cesario et al. write “when adjusting for crime, we find no systematic evidence of
anti-Black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects” (p. 586).

They argue that criminals are more likely to encounter police and that “exposure to police accounts for the racial disparities in fatal shootings observed at the population
level” (p. 591).

They also argue that the data are strong enough to rule out racial bias as a contributing factor that influences police shootings in addition to disproportionate involvement in criminal activities.

None of their tests “provided evidence of systematic anti-Black disparity.
Moreover, the CDC data (as well as the evidence discussed in Online Supplemental Material #2) provide a very strong test of whether biased policing accounts for these
results” (p. 591).

“When considering all fatal shootings, it is clear that systematic anti-Black disparity at the national level is not observed” (p. 591).

The authors also point out that their analyses are not conclusive, but recommend their statistical approach for future investigations of this topic.

“The current research is not the final answer to the question of race and police use of deadly force. Yet it does provide perspective on how one should test for group
disparities in behavioral outcomes and on whether claims of anti-Black disparity in fatal police shootings are as certain as often portrayed in the national media” (p. 591).

Here I follow the authors advice and use their statistical approach to demonstrate that crime rates do not account for racial disparities in police killings. Instead, poverty is a much more likely cause of racial disparities in police killings.

Imagine a scenario, where a cop stops a car on a country road for speeding. In scenario A, the car is a brand new, grey Lincoln, and the driver is neat and wearing a suit. In the other scenario, the car is a 1990s old van, and the driver is unkempt and wearing an undershirt and dirty jeans. Which of these scenarios is more likely to end up with the driver of the vehicle being killed? Importantly, I argue that it doesn’t matter whether the driver is Black, White or Hispanic. What matters is that they fit a stereotype of a poor person, who looks more like a potential criminal.

The poverty hypothesis explains the disproportionate rate of police killings of Black people by the fact that Black US citizens are more likely to be poor, because a long history of slavery and discrimination continues to produce racial inequalities in opportunities and wealth. According to this hypothesis, the racial disparities in police killings should shrink or be eliminated, when we use poverty rates rather than population proportions as a benchmark for police killings (Cesario et al., 2019).

I obtained poverty rates in the United States from the Kaiser Family Foundation website (KFF).

In absolute numbers, there are more White citizens who are poor than Black citizens. However, proportional to their representation in the population, Black citizens are 2.5 times more likely to be poor than White citizens.

These numbers imply that there are approximately 40 million Black citizens and 180 million White citizens.

Based on Cesario et al’s (2019) statistics in Table 1, there are on average 255 Black citizens and 526 White citizens that are killed by police in a given year.

We can now use this information to compute the odds of being killed, the odds of being poor, and the odds of being killed given being poor, assuming that police predominantly kill poor people.

First, we see again that Black citizens are about two times more likely to be killed by police than White citzens (Total OR(B/W) = 2.29). This matches the odds ratio of being Black among poor people (.20/.08 = 2.5).

More important, the odds ratio of getting killed by police for poor Black citizens, 3.34 out of 100,000, is similar to the odds ratio of getting killed by police for poor White citizens, 3.64 out of 100,000. The odds ratio is close to 1, and does no longer show a racial bias for Black citizens to be killed more often by police, OR(B/W) = 0.92. In fact, there is a small bias for White citizens to be more likely to be killed. This might be explained by the fact that White US citizens are more likely to own a gun than Black citizens, and owning a gun may increase the chances of a police encounter to go wrong (Gramlich, 2018).

The present results are much more likely to account for the racial bias in police killings than Cesario et al.’s (2019) analyses that suggested crime is a key factor. The crime hypothesis makes the unrealistic assumption that only criminals get killed by police. However, it is known that innocent US citizens are sometimes killed by accident in police encounters. It is also not clear how police could avoid such accidents because they cannot always know whether they are encountering a criminal or not. In these situations of uncertainty, police officers may rely on cues that are partially valid indicators such as race or appearance. The present results suggest that cues of poverty play a more important role than race. As a result, poor White citizens are also more likely to be killed than middle-class and well-off citizens.

Cesario et al.’s (2019) results also produced some surprising and implausible results. For example, when using reported violent crimes, Black citizens have a higher absolute number of severe crimes (67,534 reported crimes in a year) than White citizens (29,713). Using these numbers as benchmarks for police shootings leads to the conclusion that police offers are 5 times more likely to kill a White criminal than a Black criminal, OR(B/W) = 0.21.

According to this analyses, police should have killed 1,195 Black criminals, given the fact that they killed 526 White criminals, and that there are 2.3 times more Black criminals than White criminals. Thus, the fact that they only killed 252 Black criminals shows that police disproportionally kill White criminals. Cesario et al. (2019) offer no explanation for this finding. They are satisfied with the fact that their analyses show no bias to kill more Black citizens.

The reason for the unexplained White-bias in police killings is that it is simply wrong to use crime rates as the determinant of police shootings. Another injustice in the United States is that Black victims of crime are much less likely to receive help from the police than White victims (Washington Post). For example, the Washington Post estimated that every year 2,600 murders go without an arrest of a suspect. It is much more likely that the victim of an unsolved murder is Black (1,860) than White (740), OR(B/W) = 2.5. Thus, one reason why police offers are less likely to kill Black criminals than White criminals is that they are much less likely to arrest Black criminals who murdered a Black citizen. This means, that crime rates are a poor benchmark for encounters with the police because it is more likely that a Black criminal gets killed by another Black criminal than that he is arrested by a White police officer. This means that innocent, poor Black citizens face two injustices. They are more likely to be mistaken as a criminal and killed by police and they do not receive help from police when they are a victim of a crime.

Conclusion

I welcome Cesario et al.’s (2019) initiative to examine the causes of racial disparities in police shootings. I also agree with them that we need to use proper benchmarks to understand these racial disparities. However, I disagree with their choice of crime statistics to benchmark police shootings. The use of crime statistics is problematic for several reasons. First, police do not always know whether they encounter a criminal or not and sometimes shoot innocent people. The use of crime statistics doesn’t allow for innocent victims of police shootings and makes it impossible to examine racial bias in the killing of innocent citizens. Second, crime statistics are a poor indicator of police encounters because there exist racial disparities in the investigation of crimes with Black and White victims. I show that poverty is a much better benchmark that accounts for racial disparities in police shootings. Using poverty, there is only a relatively small bias that police officers are more likely to shoot White poor citizens than Black poor citizens, and this bias may be explained by the higher rate of gun-ownership by White citizens.

Implications

My new finding that poverty rather than criminality accounts for racial disparities in police shootings has important implications for public policy.

Cesario et al. (2019) suggest that their findings imply that implicit bias training will have little effect on police killings.

This suggests that department-wide attempts at reform through programs such as implicit bias training will have little to no effect on racial disparities in deadly force, insofar as
officers continue to be exposed after training to a world in which different racial groups are involved in criminal activity to different degrees (p.
592).

This conclusion is based on their view that police only kill criminals during lawful arrests and that killings of violent criminals are an unavoidable consequences of having to arrest these criminals.

However, the present results lead to a different conclusions. Although some killings by police are unavoidable, others can be avoided because not all victims of police shootings are violent criminals. The new insight is that the bias is not only limited to Black people, but also includes poor White people. I see no reason why better training could not reduce the number of killings of poor Americans.

The public debate about police killings also ignores other ways to reduce police killings. The main reason for the high prevalence of police killings in the United States are the gun laws of the United States. This will not change any time soon. Thus, all citizens of the United States, even those that do not own guns, need to be aware that many US citizens are armed. A police officer who makes 20 traffic stops a day, is likely to encounter at least five drivers who own a gun and maybe a couple of drivers who have a gun in their car. Anybody who encounters a police officer needs to understand that they have to assume you might have a gun on you. This means citizens need to be trained how to signal to a police officer that they do not own a gun or pose no threat to the police officer’s live in any other way. Innocent until proven guilty applies in court, but it doesn’t apply when police encounter citizens. You are a potential suspect, until officers can be sure that you are not a treat to them. This is the price US citizens pay for the right to bear arms. Even if you do not exercise this right, it is your right, and you have to pay the price for it. Every year, 50 police officers get killed. Everyday they take a risk when they put on their uniform to do their job. Help them to do their job and make sure that you and them walk away sound and save from the encounter. It is unfair that poor US citizens have to work harder to convince the police that they are not a threat to their lives, and better communication, contact, and training can help to make encounters between police and civilians better and saver.

In conclusion, my analysis of police shootings shows that racial bias in police shootings is a symptom of a greater bias against poor people. Unlike race, poverty is not genetically determined. Social reforms can reduce poverty and the stigma of poverty, and sensitivity training can be used to avoid killing of innocent poor people by police.

19 thoughts on “Poverty Explains Racial Bias in Police Shootings

    1. Heh, confirmation bias? 😉

      Seriously, though, I get that a lot of us don’t want to blame racism for racial disparities, and the proportion by race in poverty correlates stunningly to the proportion by race killed by police.

      But that just kicks the can down the street. Racism – maybe primarily ‘past racism’ since social mobility is very limited – is still the most plausible culprit.

      But, it does imply that increasing social mobility in the poorest segments would do the most to alleviate the problem (not just the disparity, but if there are fewer desperately poor, there should be fewer killed by police, overall). Whether that’s best done with transfer payments, with social programs, with education, or whatever other initiatives a given politician wishes to direct billions of tax dollars towards, is as always, debatable.

      Also, the correlation only holds if you don’t break out gender as well as race. There are more women in poverty than men – yet men are overwhelmingly more likely to be killed by police.

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      1. I don’t think the author is denying that there are racial biases in policing or historically.
        The author is merely pointing out that poverty is a much better indicator of death by police than race.

        Men also disproportionately kill officers, and disproportionately commit crime (about 1/3 of arrested individuals are female, and about 1/4 of all violent crime, according to FBI stats). Men are also about twice as likely to own a gun.

        However, there is one flaw in his statistics, as I’ve been combing through much of the WashPo data myself. There was at least one incident of a rich person being killed: the son of the Tarzan actor, Cameron Ely. In this incident Ely was apparently suicidal and had just killed his mother (to which the cops were responding). He made gestures that he was pulling out a weapon, and was shot 24 times. He was later found to be unarmed.

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  1. Informative article. However I am still struggling to understand how you are connecting poverty as a factor for possible racial-based police shootings. The concept makes sense to me (I can understand in theory that poor people would engage in crime more), but the way you calculated and portrayed the data doesn’t.

    You give Cesario’s numbers of 255 black citizen deaths/yr and 526 white citizen deaths/yr to calculate the odds of a black or white person being killed by police – that makes sense to me. I also understand how you arrived at black people being 2.5x more likely to be in poverty. But is the extra assumption you’re making that all of these black/white citizen deaths cited are from people in poverty, isn’t that misleading? If it was discovered that white people are 3x more likely to favor the color blue, but they’re also 3x more likely to die from skin cancer, you wouldn’t say that favoring blue is a potential cause for why whites die more from skin cancer.

    Perhaps I’m misinterpreting how you arrived at your conclusion from that data, and I am eager to learn more about what you meant.

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    1. Hi Abe, this blog post has to be seen in the context of a number of other blog posts and published criticisms of Cesario and Johnson’s articles on this topic. They make the mistake to simply assume that police only use lethal force when it is justified against violent criminals. This is an offensive, racist, and false assumption. In this blog post, I show that we can come to radically different conclusions when we assume that police only use lethal force against poor people. We end up with totally different conclusions with the same data simply by changing the assumptions.

      Suddenly this blog post is getting a lot of attention and may be misconstrued as showing scientifically that poverty is the main cause. I do believe that poverty is a factor in multiple ways, but the blog post should not be seen as scientific evidence for it.

      It should be seen as a criticism of fatally flawed science that draws wrong conclusions from racist assumptions.

      A proper criticism of the Cesario article is in press, but unfortunately not yet available. I have been contacting the journal editor to speed up the publication of Cesario et al.’s misleading article.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve looked at all your posts regarding the specific study that has been widely cited and agree with your criticisms at least in the context that the assumption that police officers only shoot violent criminals is a heavily skewed metric.

        I’m wondering if you’ve come across data in regards to how much error there is within shootings of innocent vs guilty citizens by police. I would assume that police don’t only kill violent criminals but they overwhelming should. As I’ve continued to try to look into the issue of police shootings, it’s been difficult to find reliable data overall.

        Have you come across reliable studies with sound methodologies that demonstrate there is racial bias in police shootings? Because from what I’ve read, most of the studies either claim no racial bias or claim that there are statistical disparities between races. However it’s not apparent whether or not what those differences are the result of racial prejudice and discrimination or other factors.

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      2. You are right that most shootings are justified. However, there are just too many shootings and other killings that are not. Among those that are not justified, there is racial disparity. I think what we don’t know how much. More important, the racial disparity in killings reflects much wider racism in policing.

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    2. The data directly lists whether the individuals killed were poor or not poor. It’s in the first table under “poor” vs “not poor.”

      “We can now use this information to compute the odds of being killed, the odds of being poor, and the odds of being killed given being poor, assuming that police predominantly kill poor people,” as stated prior to the data by the author.

      HOWEVER, there is one case of a rich kid getting shot. I am not sure if there are any others. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7588665/Inside-4-8million-Santa-Barbara-home-Tarzan-stars-wife-stabbed-death.html

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  2. Hi Dr. R,

    Is there data available on the socioeconomic status of people killed by police, broken down by race?

    I understand the purpose of your post so please do not take my question the wrong way. I simply want to see this assumption expanded to include the relevant data.

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    1. good question. unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. My understanding is that it is very hard to do science in this area because there is no effort and political will to collect the necessary data.

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  3. Howdy Dr. R,

    I have not read the studies you have cited. I have arrived here because I was curious about deaths by police shootings by socioeconomic status. Going off of your tables, what I thought was true seems to be true which is that poor people are more likely to be killed than wealthier people.

    However, the only thing I do not understand about your table is how you decided that the people that were killed were indeed poor. I saw in a earlier comment that this is simply a blog post and you made the assumption that this is the case. I guess I am just trying to confirm that you assumed that everyone killed was poor for the purpose of the blog post.

    Out of curiosity, if there is racial bias in people getting shot, would you say it is due to the rate of crimes committed or because the rate of people being poor? Or is there not racial bias? I will admit, even though I read the entire article, I am not sure if I fully understood everything you were trying to say.

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    1. I wrote this post to show that conclusions are extremely dependent on researchers assumptions. If I want crime to be the cause, I use crime statistics, if i want poverty to be the cause, I use poverty. Neither is very satisfying. So, what do we really know. I think there is little doubt that poverty and crime are related to police shootings. It is also clear that this does not explain killings of many non-violent Black citizens. What is more difficult is to disentangle all of this because we often lack good data. Personally, I think that all of these things, including racial bias of some (!) police officers matters. Just not sure how much.

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  4. What’s more, if you run a regression on the number of people in poverty across each race correlated to the number of police shootings by race over the last several years the R^2 is an astonishing 95% (annual mortality rate of approximately 1 in 50k impoverished citizens for both blacks and whites). The data appears to indicate that number of people in poverty is the root cause of these shootings not police racial bias directly; however, the inextricable link between race and disparate poverty rates perpetuated by systemic racism cannot be ignored. A more perfect understanding of these socioeconomic issues and their deleterious impacts will better equip us to battle these sensitive topics with the goal of dispelling the quasi caste system in this country. For those born to poverty, the malticration dilemma these days is not one of ‘Harvard or Yale’ but rather ‘Prison or Jail’. I strongly believe a massive negative income tax for households below the poverty line is a viable strategy to address inequality that could garner support on a bipartisan basis but unfortunately will not get any media coverage in the upcoming election.

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    1. I agree with you! I also think that looking into zoning laws and the systemic bias in loan issuance would be good subjects to tackle as well. I’ve also noticed a vastly disproportionate rate of black youth committing crime vs their white counterparts (feel free to look into the FBI data, however this might be biased). From the data presented on the site, the rate of juvenile crime is nearly equal to that of their black adult counterparts.

      I think greater mental healthcare and rehabilitation programs would also help solve these issues.

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