The Headlines:

“White cops are no likelier to shoot dead African-Americans than black ones are”  - The Economist July 24, 2019  https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2019/07/24/white-cops-are-no-likelier-to-shoot-dead-african-americans-than-black-ones-are

“The truth behind racial disparities in fatal police shootings” - MSU Today July 22, 2019 https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2019/the-truth-behind-racial-disparities-in-fatal-police-shootings/

 A good summary of the research behind the headlines can be found in “Overview of Current Research on Officer-Involved Shootings:  Analyses of Real-World Shooting Data”, available at https://www.cesariolab.com/police. To quote:

We have analyzed police shootings from these databases to answer two questions: (1) Are police more likely to fatally shoot Black citizens vs. White citizens? and (2) Does officer race, sex, or experience predict being more likely to shoot Black citizens vs. White citizens? 

(1) Are police more likely to fatally shoot Black citizens vs. White citizens? 

  • The standard way of testing whether there are racial disparities in fatal police shootings is to ask whether the proportion of Blacks shot by police is greater than the proportion of Blacks in the U.S. population. (For example, ~30% of those shot are Black, but Blacks make up only ~15% of the population, thus there is a racial disparity.) This answers the question, "Are Blacks or Whites more likely to be shot given population proportions?" 

  • We argue that it is misleading to compare whether a group is shot more or less than their U.S. population proportion.   

  • Instead, we argue that a better benchmark is to compare the proportion of those shot to the proportion of those who commit crime, as a proxy for exposure to the police, as the situations in which police use deadly force are overwhelming crime-related. This answers the question, "Are Blacks or Whites more likely to be shot given each group's involvement in crime?"

  • We find no evidence, at the national level, that officers show racial bias against Blacks in the decision to use deadly force.

Referenced Study: Cesario, J., Johnson, D.J., & Terrill, W. (2019). Is there evidence of racial disparity in police use of deadly force? Analyses of officer-involved shootings in 2015-2016. Social Psychological and Personality Science

(2) Does officer race, sex, or experience predict being more likely to shoot Black citizens vs. White citizens?

  • We have collected perhaps the most complete database of officer characteristics to date, compiling officer data on all fatal police shootings in 2015. … The short summary of this research is the following:

  • We found no evidence that the race of a police officer related to minority citizens being shot. In other words, White officers were not more likely than minority officers to shoot Black citizens.  

  • Instead, race-specific violent crime rates were the strongest predictor of a citizen being shot. The greater number of crimes committed by Whites in a county, the more likely a White citizen in that county would be shot. The greater number of crimes committed by Blacks in a county, the more likely a Black citizen in that county would be shot. And the greater number of crimes committed by Hispanics in a county, the more likely a Hispanic citizen in that county would be shot.

  • This suggests that diversifying police forces will not reduce the number of minority citizens shot by the police each year. Instead, consistent with our other work, this work suggests that the single most effective solution to reducing fatal police shootings is to reduce crime. 

Referenced Study: Johnson, D.J., Tress, T., Burkel, N., Taylor, C., & Cesario, J. (2019). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What can be done to reduce police shootings? Community policing might help by creating personal relationships with residents and diffusing police-civilian tensions in high-crime areas. Better training on de-escalation techniques might make a difference. But as the researchers point out, the best way to reduce police shootings is to reduce crime*. Less crime, fewer occasions for violent confrontations involving the police.

* A few ways to reduce crime: improve clearance rates, swift and sure punishment but shorter sentences, more focus on rehabilitation (especially education/training), and a universal Adult Student Basic Income to smooth re-entry and give hope to ex-offenders who are starting over.

Links:

https://www.cesariolab.com/police

https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2019/07/24/white-cops-are-no-likelier-to-shoot-dead-african-americans-than-black-ones-are

https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2019/the-truth-behind-racial-disparities-in-fatal-police-shootings/