Researchers Find No Racial Disparity in Police Deadly Force…and That’s Just the Beginning.

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American Police are not systematically engaged in racially biased shootings.  There is no epidemic of police shooting unarmed citizens, of any race.  And, errors in police deadly force decision making (cases in which police shoot unarmed, non-attacking citizens) occur at a rate of about one in a million.  And realistically, it’s probably much lower than that.  

These findings, and others, were recently reported by faculty at Michigan State University and the University of Maryland at College Park.  In separate studies, which analyzed police shootings over one- and two-year periods, these researchers answered, “What factors predict the race of a person fatally shot by police?

Many of you are familiar with the findings of the published Michigan State and University of Maryland study.  The report, titled Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings,1Johnson, D.J., Tress, T., Burkel, N., Taylor, C., and Cesario, J. (2019). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1903856116 received widespread notoriety in national media and police publications.

But this latest publication was not the only source that detailed research findings on this critical topic.  In this article, we review the methods and findings of that one-year study and bring you additional insights, particularly those of Dr. Joseph Cesario,2Associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. PhD, Social Psychology, Columbia University, New York, 2006, MA, Psychology, Columbia University, New York, 2003, BA, Philosophy, Magna cum Laude, Outstanding Senior, Loyola University Chicago, 2000, BS, Psychology, Magna cum Laude, Departmental Honors, Loyola University Chicago, 1999.  Dr. Cesario describes his research interests as Motivated Cognition; Automaticity/Nonconscious Behavior and Cognition; Police Decision-Making. stemming from a larger two-year study and the interviews that followed.

The One-Year Study

After reviewing 917 fatal police shootings from across the country, the largest database of its kind for a single year study (2015), researchers made several important observations.  First, between 90 and 95 percent of civilians shot were attacking police or others.  For purposes of the study, civilians were not considered as “attacking” the police unless they were armed or actively struggling.  Merely advancing toward the officer, no matter how threatening, was not included in the definition of “attack.” 

Researchers also found that 90 percent of civilians shot by the police in 2015 were “armed.”  Notably, the definition of “armed” did not include civilians attempting to take an officer’s gun.  Adding attempted disarmings to the definition would have slightly raised this percentage.   

In their report, researchers tackled two important questions head-on:  Do white officers disproportionately fatally shoot racial minorities?  And, which factor most strongly correlates to the race of the person fatally shot by the police?  Their conclusions?  There was no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity in police shootings by white officers, or any other officers

Instead, the factor that correlated most strongly to the race of the person fatally shot was the violent crime rate of their racial group.

The factor that correlated most strongly to the race of the person fatally shot was the violent crime rate of their racial group.

The Two-Year Study

In 2018, Dr. Cesario and his colleagues published a separate but related study that analyzed two years (2015-2016) worth of fatal police shooting data.3Cesario, J., Johnson, D., and Terril, W. (2018). Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force? Analyses of Officer-Involved Fatal Shootings in 2015–2016.  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1-10. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618775108  Here too, after analyzing over 1500 police shootings, the researchers concluded that after adjusting for crime:

  • There is no evidence of systematic anti-Black disparities in overall fatal shootings.
  • There is no evidence of systematic anti-Black disparities in fatal shootings of unarmed citizens.
  • There is no evidence of systematic anti-Black disparities in fatal shootings involving misidentification of objects as weapons.

Many of you are not surprised by these findings.  They confirm what you already knew.  But the importance of this research doesn’t just lie in the conclusions, it lies in its methodology.

The Right “Benchmark”

A group’s representation in the overall population continues to be the most common benchmark used to argue that racial disparity or bias exists.  If Blacks represent 13% of the population, then any representation in the criminal justice system above 13% is offered as evidence of racial disparity.  Using this metric almost guarantees a finding of racial disparity (and allegations of racial bias) in every aspect of the criminal justice system. 

Dr. Cesario outright rejects census representation as the benchmark by which to determine racial disparity in police shootings.  According to Dr. Cesario, using the overall population metric assumes that all citizens are equally likely to be exposed to situations in which deadly force is used. 

Given that police use of deadly force is strongly tied to crime-related contexts, the more correct benchmark to calculate racial disparity is not population proportions, but instead rates of police exposure by that racial group.  In other words, when analyzing the number of Blacks shot by police, it becomes irrelevant that Blacks represent only 13% of the overall population, if they represent a different percentage of people exposed to the police through criminal activity. 

To estimate the rate of police exposure, Dr. Cesario and his team compared criminal activity of Blacks and Whites from four sources:

  1. the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Summary Report System,
  2. the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System,
  3. the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, and
  4. the Centers for Disease Control’s homicide database.

Some have argued that potential bias in discretionary stops (“stop and frisk”) may lead to more police interactions with black citizens and therefore more deadly force encounters.  Researchers acknowledged this concern and noted, “[T]he number of police shootings that start with truly discretionary stops of citizens who have not violated the law is low ( ~ 5%) and probably do not meaningfully impact [our] analysis.”

Even so, researchers took additional steps to alleviate concerns that the FBI’s policing data may be subject to racial bias.  The Crime Victimization Survey and the Center for Disease Control data—data sets uncontaminated by police bias—were compared with the FBI’s policing data and the results were consistent.

After accounting for estimated rates of police exposure, Whites were either more likely to be fatally shot by police or police showed no significant disparity in either direction.

“[T]he number of police shootings that start with truly discretionary stops of citizens who have not violated the law is low ( ~ 5%) and probably do not meaningfully impact [our] analysis.”

Dr. Joseph Cesario

Rejecting Census Statistics is Not New. 

Dr. Cesario and his colleagues were not the first to reject census-based benchmarks.  In finding that racial bias did not exist in police shootings, Economist and Harvard professor Roland Fryer, also recognized the difficulty of analyzing data through a population-based approach.  In his report, Prof. Fryer cites sociologists who similarly rejected the population-based approach, quoting one as saying, “racial/ethnic groups are not equivalent in the nature and extent of their…law violating behavior.”4 Fryer, R. G., Jr. (2016). An empirical analysis of racial differences in police use of force. NBER Working Paper Series Working Paper 22399. (Citing Fridell, L.A., 2004. By the numbers: A guide for analyzing race data from vehicle stops. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.)

In The War on Cops (2016), Heather Mac Donald, the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, vigorously rejected population-based disparity studies.5The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, by Heather Mac Donald, Encounter Books, 2016.  In her New York Times bestseller, Mac Donald convincingly argued that crime, not race, is responsible for police action.  Favorably citing the Michigan State and University of Maryland study, Heather Mac Donald advanced her position in a recent article, There Is No Epidemic of Racist Police Shootings, published in National Review Online.

Despite the efforts of researchers like Cesario, Fryer, and Mac Donald, proponents of police reform continued to rely on population-based statistics to justify findings of racial disparity or bias.  Police agencies are familiar with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s past use of population-based comparisons in its search for systemic civil rights violations.  These highly controversial findings were offered as “evidence” of unconstitutional racial discrimination and then leveraged against police departments to enter costly and lengthy consent decrees; some of which remain in effect today. 

Beyond the Report: The Manifold Interview

In a recent interview recorded for Michigan State University’s Manifold podcast, Dr. Cesario was invited to discuss his research.  The interview went beyond racial disparity in police use of deadly force and included discussions of non-lethal force bias, stop and frisk data, police decision making error rates, implicit bias, the “Ferguson effect,” and publication bias. 

The interviewers were accomplished researchers holding PhDs in Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theoretical Physics.  They were quite capable of intelligently challenging Dr. Cesario’s findings—and they did.

Dr. Cesario was confronted with thoughtful questions and persistent “push back” to his findings.  Even so, his responses demonstrated a mastery of the subject.  He was detailed, but most of all, convincing. 

This article was written in part to direct readers to the full interview, which I encourage you to listen to.  For now, let me offer some compelling highlights.

Joe Cesario on Police Decision Making and Racial Bias in Deadly Force Decisions

View Resources

Manifold Highlights

Dr. Cesario began by explaining the logical fallacy and, therefore, irrelevance of population-based comparisons.  Using examples outside of Criminal Justice, Dr. Cesario maintained that population proportion is the wrong benchmark in virtually every study of group outcomes.  He observed, “Comparing to a group’s population level is almost always not going to tell you anything about bias in the decision-making process.”6Manifold Podcast. Joe Cesario on Police Decision Making and Racial Bias in Deadly Force Decisions – Episode #11.  Last accessed on Aug. 4, 2019 at https://manifoldlearning.com/2019/05/30/episode-011/  Transcript at https://manifoldlearning.com/2019/05/30/episode-011-transcript/ Understanding the proper benchmark for disparity research is a foundational first-step for anyone hoping to meaningfully assess the need for criminal justice, or more specifically, police reform.

In another observation, Dr. Cesario confirmed that some data sets involving non-lethal use of force do show an anti-Black bias.  He puts that finding into perspective as he notes, in cases where anti-Black bias is observed, it is “really quite small.” 

To make his point, Dr. Cesario looks at the Taser use data by the Center for Policing Equity, which the Center offers as evidence of a 1.5 times higher likelihood that black citizens will be tased during an arrest.  He cautions that the meaning behind these numbers is frequently misunderstood in that, a 1.5 times higher likelihood of being tased equates to about 6 black citizens out of 1000 arrests who get tasered, versus about 4 black citizens out of 1000 arrests if bias had not impacted the decisions.

What are the chances of getting shot by the police through no fault of your own?  Dr. Cesario looked at error rates relative to shooting unarmed, non-assaultive citizens.  To make his point, Dr. Cesario crunched the numbers for the worst-case scenario, giving no benefit of the doubt to the police.  By this measure, he identified roughly 50 times in which the police shot unarmed, non-assaultive citizens in 2015.  He then compared that number against the minimum number of person-police encounters, roughly 50 million.  The result?  The chances of an unarmed person, who is not aggressing the officer, being fatally shot is .0001%, or one in a million.  Dr. Cesario notes, “It’s an incredibly small error rate for what is an exceptionally dangerous and difficult decision that officers have to make. It’s probably … half or even less than that error rate if we are being more generous to the police.”

“It’s an incredibly small error rate for what is an exceptionally dangerous and difficult decision that officers have to make. It’s probably … half or even less than that error rate if we are being more generous to the police.”

Dr. Joseph Cesario

Proceed with Caution

When Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings was published, there was an understandable rush to report the findings.  For those who have been arguing against the existence of racial bias in police shootings, this was a welcome confirmation.

I would close by reminding readers that community outrage and mistrust are emotional events.  As I noted in How to Defend American Policing, among the audience we hope to persuade are some of the most educated and patriotic of Americans.7Kliem, L., How to Defend American Policing (2018) Last accessed August 4, 2019 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-defend-american-policing-von-kliem/Article available by request. Proceed with caution.  Their feelings can be a sincere reaction to misleading, sensationalized, and politically distorted accounts of police conduct.  In the face of fear and outrage, persuasion doesn’t start with facts.

In the face of fear and outrage, persuasion doesn’t start with facts.

The experience of Dr. Cesario and his colleagues confirms this observation and reminds us that biased interest groups can be found in universities, publishing offices, and among our most highly educated researchers.    

When asked how psychologists and criminologists are reacting to his research, Dr. Cesario’s response is sadly not surprising, “It has not been positive among people who study fatal police shootings, …, because it’s undermining what their research finds.”  When reminded that it can be difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it, Dr. Cesario added, “Actually, it’s salary and reputation, …, and in some sense even more important, their life’s work.”

The Number One Way to Reduce Fatal Shootings

When asked what he would say to someone trying to reduce fatal shootings of black men, Dr. Cesario was direct:

“[T]he number one way to reduce fatal shootings of anybody, black or white citizens or Hispanic citizens, …, the number one thing is reduction in crime,…not being involved in criminal activity is far and away the best way to not be shot by the police.”

Dr. Joseph Cesario

Simple…but not easy. 

4 Responses
  1. Stephen Rickeard

    Excellent article. Unfortunately those who believe police are bias in there handling of incidents, including use of force, do not really care what research shows. Many of these people have their own agendas.

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