Category Archives: Police

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.

https://www.texastribune.org/2019/10/13/fort-worth-police-officer-shoots-and-kills-black-woman-home/

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.

https://abcnews.go.com/US/officer-fatally-shot-atatiana-jefferson-home-indicted-murder/story?id=67858348

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.

Young Unarmed Non-Suicidal Male Victims of Fatal Use of Force are Thirteen Times more Likely to be Black than White

Rickard Carlsson and I think that Johnson, Tress, Burke, and Cesario misinterpreted the results of their regression models, when they concluded that there is no evidence of racial bias against Black civilians when police use fatal force. We show with their own data that there is a dramatic racial disparity for young unarmed males. We are pleased that PNAS made us revise our original comment (posted here) and accepted our revised comment (posted below) for publication. The 500 world limit made it impossible to say everything we wanted to say, but we think we got the main point across. The original PNAS article makes claims that are not supported by the data.

PNAS Letter (Accepted for publication, Dec/5/2019)

Ulrich Schimmack
University of Toronto Mississauga

Rickard Carlsson
Linnaeus University

A recent PNAS article reported “no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across [fatal] shootings” by police officers. [1]. This claim is based on the results of a regression model that suggested “a person fatally shot by police was 6.67 times less [italics added] likely (OR = 0.15 [0.09, 0.27]) to be Black than White” (1).  The article also claims the results “do not depend on which predictors are used” (p. 15881). These claims are misleading because the reported results apply only to a subset of victims and do not control for the fact that we would expect a higher number of White victims simply because the majority of US citizens are White.

The published odds-ratio of 0.15 is based on a regression model that made the intercept correspond to a county with 4 times more White (50%) than Black (12%) citizens.  In addition, the intercept of the model corresponds to a country where White homicides rates equal (a) Black homicide rates and (b) Hispanic homicide rates, and where victims are (c) average age (36.71y), and White and Black victims are equally likely to (d) have mental health problems, (e) be suicidal, (f) armed, and (g) attacking an officer.  We found that including suicidal as a predictor had the strongest effect on the intercept, which doubled the odds of the victim being White (OR = .24 vs. .49). In contrast, adjusting only for differences in Black and White homicide rates, left the intercept unchanged (OR = .48 vs. 49).  Thus, the main contribution of the regression analysis is to show that that the odds of a victim being White doubles when the percentage of suicidal victims increase from 11% in the actual population to a 50% in a hypothetical population. The fact that older suicidal victims are disproportionally more likely to be White shows that not all victims of lethal use of force are violent criminals.

Although use of force with citizens who suffer mental health problem is important, another group of interest are young, unarmed, mentally healthy (non-suicidal) men.  To examine racial disparities in this group, we specified an alternative model that focused on young (age 20), unarmed male victims that showed no signs of mental health problems and were not suicidal in a county with equal proportions of Black and White citizens. The intercept of this model suggested that victims with these characteristics are 13.67 times more likely to be Black than White, 95%CI = 6.65, 28.13 (https://osf.io/hm6f2/).The stark contrast between the published finding and our finding contradicts the authors claims that their results hold across subgroups of victims. Contrary to this claim, their data are entirely consistent with the public perception that young male victims of fatal use of force are disproportionally Black. Importantly, neither the original, nor our finding address the causes of racial disparities among victims of deadly use of force. Our results merely confirm other recent findings that racial disparities exist and that they are particularly large for young males (2)

References

1. Johnson, D. J., Trevor T., Nicole, B., Carley, T., & Cesario, J. (2019). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(32), 15877–15882.

2. Edwards, F., Lee, H., Esposito, M. (2019). Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(34), 16793-16798. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1821204116