Is There Really a Racial Bias in Police Shootings?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yes, according to conventional wisdom. But an Atlantic reader flags “surprising new evidence” via The New York Times that suggests otherwise. Money quote:

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias. “It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard.

Update from another reader, Eric:

This study has been getting a lot of play in the media, I think in part because it goes against conventional wisdom and seems to provide an argument against allegations of bias in policing. However, the reporting on the study has been pretty abysmal since it tends to focus on the top-line conclusion about officer involved shootings while ignoring all of the caveats about the data that the researchers include and downplaying the conclusions about racial bias in non-lethal force.

To directly quote the introduction of the article [PDF] about the data in officer-involved shootings:

Our results have several important caveats. First, all but one dataset was provided by a select group of police departments. It is possible that these departments only supplied the data because they are either enlightened or were not concerned about what the analysis would reveal. In essence, this is equivalent to analyzing labor market discrimination on a set of firms willing to supply a researcher with their Human Resources data!

And to collect the data, “fifteen police departments across the country were contacted by the author: Boston, Camden, NYC, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, six Florida counties, and Tacoma, Washington. Importantly for thinking about the representativeness of the data – many of these cities were a part of the Obama Administration’s Police Data Initiative.”

Those two statements alone should be enough to give people pause about the breadth of the conclusions that can be drawn since the authors make it clear that the data they have on officer-involved shootings is probably not representative of the whole country.

This section of the study also relies on police narratives to provide context for the shootings to identify potential racial bias. The authors note that,

The OIS data have several notable limitations. Taken alone, officer-involved shootings are the most extreme and least used form of police force and thus, in isolation, may be misleading. Second, the penalties for wrongfully discharging a lethal weapon in any given situation can be life altering, thus, the incentive to misrepresent contextual factors on police reports may be large. Third, we don’t typically have the suspect’s side of the story and often there are no witnesses. Fourth, it is impossible to capture all variables of importance at the time of a shooting. Thus, what appears to be discrimination to some may look like mis-measured contextual factors to others.

Given all that, it is important not to treat this study as the final word. It represents good research but at least one other study [by UC-Davis’s Cody T. Ross] has come to the opposite conclusions about race and officer-involved shootings using different data and different methods.

More research is certainly needed, especially research that explores the wide variation in the number of shootings between different police departments. But given the inherent structural bias with data collected by police departments, and the fact that we will never have accurate data on the number of potentially justified shootings that didn’t occur (a point made by the authors), we shouldn’t expect any study to prove or disprove the existence of racial bias in officer involved shootings.

For more on this empirical quandary, see “The Missing Statistics of Criminal Justice” by my colleague Matt Ford last year.