US police are 12 times more likely to draw a gun in encounters with unarmed Black versus White civilians

It is a well-known fact among criminologists and other social sciences that Black US citizens are killed by police in disproportionate numbers. That is, relative to the percentage in the US population, Black civilians are killed 2 to 3 times more often than White civilians. This is about the only solid fact in the social sciences on racial disparities in lethal use of force.

Researchers vehemently disagree about the causes of this disparity. Some suggest that it is at least partially caused by racial biases in policing and the decision to use lethal force. Others argue that it is explained by the fact that police is more likely to use lethal force with violent criminals and that Black citizens are more likely to be violent criminals. Some of this disagreement can be explained by different ways to look at the same statistics and confusion about the meaning of the results.

A study by Wheeler, Philips, Worrall, and Bishopp (2017) illustrates the problem of poor communication of results. The authors report the results of an important study that provides much needed information about the frequency of use of force. The researches had access to nearly 2,000 incidences where an officer from the Dallas Police Department drew a weapon. In about 10% of these incidences, officers fired at least one shot (207 out of 1909). They also had information about the ethnicity of the civilian involved. Their abstract states a clear conclusion. “African Americans are less likely than Whites to be shot” (p. 49). The discussion section elaborates on this main finding. “Contrary to the national implicit bias narrative, our analysis found that African Americans were less likely to be shot than White subjects” (p. 65).

The next paragraph highlights that the issue is more complex.

It cannot be overemphasized that the addition of don’t shoot control cases to police
shooting cases dramatically alters the findings. With a simple census comparison (see
Results and Discussion and Conclusion), African Americans were overrepresented in
the shootings compared to Whites and Latinos. Similarly, when only examining
shooting incidents (see first column of Table 4 and accompanying narrative), of those
shot, African Americans had a higher probability of being unarmed compared to
White suspects. However, by incorporating control cases in which officers did not
shoot, we reached completely opposite inferences, namely, that African Americans
have a lower probability of being shot relative to Whites.

This paragraph is followed by a reaffirmation that “neither analysis hints at racial bias against African Americans” (p. 66).

They authors than point out that their conclusion in the abstract is severely limited to a very narrow definition of racial bias.

As previously mentioned, an important limitation of the study is the fact that such an analysis is only relevant to officer decision-making after they have drawn their firearm” (p. 66).

This restrictive definition of racial bias explains why the authors main conclusion results in a paradox. On the one hand, there is strong and clear evidence that more Black US citizens die at the hand of police than White US citizens. On the other hand, the authors claim that there is no racial bias against Black US citizens in the decision to shoot. This leaves the open question how there can be racial disparity in deaths without racial bias in shots fired. The answer is simple. Officers are much more likely to draw a weapon in encounters with Black civilians. This information is provided in Table 2

Officers drew a weapon in 1082 (57%) encounters with Black civilians compared to 273 (14%) encounters with White civilians, a disparity of 4:1. The abstract ignores this fact and focuses on the conditional probability that shots are fired when a gun is drawn (9% vs. 12%), a disparity of 1:1.3. Given the much larger racial disparity in decisions to draw a gun versus to shoot when a gun is drawn, Black civilians are actually shot disproportionally more than White civilians (100 vs. 34) at a ratio of 3:1. This is consistent with national statistics that show a 2-3:1 racial disparity in lethal use of force.

It is absolutely misleading to conclude from these data that there is no racial bias in policing or the use of force and to suggest that these results are inconsistent with the idea that racial biases in policing lead to a disproportionate number of unarmed Black civilians being killed by police.

Even more relevant information is contained in Table 4 that shows incidences in which the civilian was unarmed.

Despite being unarmed, officers drew their weapons in 239 incidences compared to 38 incidences for White civilians, a disparity of 6:1. As a result, Black civilians are also much more likely to be shot by police than White civilians (22 vs. 5), 4:1 ratio.

To fully understand the extent of racial disparities in the drawing of a weapon and shots being fired it is necessary to take the ethnic composition of Dallas into account. Wikipedia suggests that the ratio is 2:1 for Whites (50% White, 25% Black). Thus, the racial disparity in police officers drawing a gun on an unarmed civilian is 12:1 and the racial disparity of shooting an unarmed civilian is 8:1.

In conclusion, Wheeler et al.’s analyses suggest that racial bias in decisions to shoot when a gun is drawn are unlikely to explain racial disparities in lethal use of force. However, their data also suggest that racial biases in the decision to draw a gun on Black civilians may very well contribute to the disproportionate killing of unarmed civilians. The authors racial bias is revealed by their emphasize on the decision to shoot after drawing a gun, while ignoring the large racial disparity in the decision to draw a gun in the first place.

Political bias in the social sciences is a major problem. In an increasingly polarized political world, especially in the United States, scientists should try to unit a country by creating a body of solid empirical facts that only the fringe extremists and willful ignorant continue to ignore. Abuse of science to produce misleading false claims only fuels the division and gives extremists false facts to cement their ideology. It is time to take a look at systemic racism in criminology to ensure credibility especially with Black civilians. Distrust in institutions like the police or science will only fuel the division and endanger lives of all colors. It is therefore extremely unfortunate that Wheeler et al. explicitly use their article to discredit valid concerns by the BlackLivesMatter movement about racial disparities in policing.

The tragic and avoidable death of Atatiana Jefferson in neighboring Fort Worth is only one example that shows how Weehler et al.’s conclusions disregard evidence of racial in lethal use of force. A young, poorly trained officers drew a gun with deadly consequences. Called for a wellness-check (!!!) in a Black neighborhood, the White officer unannounced entered the dark backyard. The female victim heard some noise in the backyard, got her legal gun, and went to the window to examine the situation. Spooked, the police officer fired at the window and killed the homeowner. In Wheeler’s statistics, this incidence would be coded as the decision to shoot after drawing a gun with an armed Black civilian. The real question is what he was thinking to search a dark backyard with his gun drawn.

These all-to-common incidences are not only tragic for the victims and their relatives. They are also likely to have dramatic consequences for police officers. In this case, the officer was indicted for murder.

The goal of social science should be to analyze the causes of deadly encounters between police and civilians with officers or civilians as victims to create interventions that reduce the 1000 deaths a year in these encounters. Wheeler et al.’s (2016) data and tables provide a valuable piece of information. Their conclusions do not. Future research should focus on factors that determine the drawing of a weapon, especially when civilians are unarmed. All to often, these incidences end with a dead Black body on the pavement.

5 thoughts on “US police are 12 times more likely to draw a gun in encounters with unarmed Black versus White civilians

  1. I’m so pleased to see this critique here. I have read this article and had the same reaction to the difference between the information contained in the tables and the choice of interpretation and inference.

  2. I had to a double take, because I can’t believe you’ve misinterpreted the findings so badly. The paper takes as its baseline only incidents where the officers pulled their weapon. Without correcting for the number of instances in which officers come into contact with white and black civilians overall it is completely erroneous to claim that officers are 12X more likely to shoot unarmed black men.

    You can make the claim that it’s racism that drives these contacts, but then again you’re going to have to control from levels of crime or calls to police, etc. before making claims about bias. This is what serious criminologists do.

    1. Thank you for revealing your own bias. I did not misinterpret the paper. I showed that we can look at the same data and draw entirely different conclusions about racial bias when we focus on the conditional probability of having a gun drawn on you given population proportions rather than the conditional probability of getting shot when a gun is drawn. If you are unable to distinguish between these two probabilities, I suggest to take some basic courses on statistics on Khan academy.

      1. Yes, everyone is biased except you.

        You still haven’t made an argument for why we should control for population instead of controlling for levels of crime or rates at which police are dispatched to neighborhoods. All you have is a lazy appeal to authority.

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