Study: White cops are not more likely to shoot black subjects

A new study authored by the Crime Prevention Research Center digs deep into the data during a period that ‘bookends’ the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson

The death of Michael Brown in August 2014 caused millions of dollars in property damage locally, and precipitated the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement nationally. Further, it focused scrutiny on law enforcement by the press, the public, and the political elites. Following that fatal OIS in Ferguson, there has been a widespread perception — perpetuated by the mainstream national media — that white police officers are biased against black subjects in their use of lethal force. 

However, a new study authored by John Lott and Carlisle Moody of the Crime Prevention Research Center digs deep into the numbers to demonstrate that this assertion is inaccurate. The study examined data from 2013 to 2015, which represents 19 months prior to Brown’s death, and 16 months after the incident. In short, the study found “no statistically significant difference between shootings of black suspects by black and white officers.”

Because there are myriad data sets explored, a thorough review of the entire text is strongly recommended. And because the 32-page document is filled with 13 “eye-chart” data tables and is peppered with terms like “logit model,” “binary dependent variable,” and “unobserved heterogeneity,” a summarized version of the highlights is merited in this space. 

On West Florissant in Ferguson, buildings were burned to the ground when word came down that a grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson.
On West Florissant in Ferguson, buildings were burned to the ground when word came down that a grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson. (AP Photo)

Digging deep into the data
Lott and Moody examined a total of 2,699 fatal police shootings for the years 2013 to 2015. “This is 1,333 more killings by police than is provided by the FBI data on justifiable police homicides,” the study stated. 

Lott and Moody noted that while the CDC and FBI collect data on police shootings, they miss many shootings, in part because not all jurisdictions provide data. Further, very important data is left out of the CDC and FBI data, such as race of the officer and the race of the subject. There is also a lack of information on the incident — such as whether or not the suspect presented a threat meeting Graham standards.

“In only about 31 percent to 35 percent of the cases does the FBI have data on the age, race, and gender of the person killed,” Lott and Moody wrote. “By contrast, we have this information for 100 percent of our cases.”

Lott and Moody collected data from sources including LexisNexis, Google, and several online databases concerned with police shootings. The team also consulted online police data directly from police departments. They also directly contacted police departments with fatal OIS incidents during the period studied in order to get more information on the officers involved in the shootings.

The researchers gathered information about the number of officers on the scene as well as the subject’s involvement in a crime. The researchers suspect that the more officers on the scene, the less likely it is that the suspect will resist. They also contend that having more officers present might lead to more accurate police reports. 

“Increasing the number of police on the scene reduces the suspects’ odds of being killed by about 14 to 18 percent for each additional officer. Going from one officer to the average number of the police on the scene of 2.39 thus implies a drop in the rate of shootings from 19 to 25 percent.”

With regard to the suspects, Lott and Moody collected data on the age of the suspect as well as whether those individuals were involved in a violent crime, a property crime, or a drug-related crime. They also sought to determine whether the suspects were armed — and if so, with what type of weapon.

The researchers found that suspects were an average age of 36 years old, with whites somewhat older than blacks. Thirty-nine percent of the suspects were involved in a violent crime, 17 percent in a property crime, and five percent in a drug crime. 

“These percentages are approximately constant across races,” the study said.

Lott and Moody found that sixty percent of the suspects were armed with a firearm, 18 percent with a knife or cutting instrument, and four percent of the suspects used a vehicle as a weapon.

The study also sought to see if the OIS on West Florissant Street had any effect on the number of police shootings involving black subjects. 

“After the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, one might expect that the ensuing publicity would have caused a drop in the rate at which blacks were shot,” the study read. 

However, Lott and Moody found the percentage of black suspects killed before Ferguson (24.8 percent) was almost exactly the same as the percentage killed in the aftermath (25 percent).

Other not-so-surprising conclusions
The researchers found in their investigation that when either the violent crime rate or the demographics of a city are accounted for, white police officers are not significantly more likely to kill a black suspect. 

“For the estimates where we know the race of the officer who killed the suspect, the ratio of the rate that blacks are killed by black versus white officers is large — ranging from three to five times larger,” read the report. 

“However, because the media may under-report the officer’s race when black officers are involved, other results that account for the fact that a disproportionate number of the unknown race officers may be more reliable. They indicate no statistically significant difference between shootings of black suspects by black and white officers,” the study stated.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post famously asserted that since black suspects made up 25 percent of those killed by police, and only 12 percent of the population is black, blacks are more likely to be shot by police.

But Lott and Moody state, “Crime rates differ across neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods tend to experience higher crime rates. Therefore, race-neutral police randomly assigned to neighborhoods will encounter more criminal activities in black neighborhoods. As such, they can be expected to employ lethal force against a higher proportion of black suspects.” 

“Furthermore, police are not randomly assigned to neighborhoods, but tend to be concentrated more heavily in crime ‘hot spots.’ These areas tend to be relatively poor and black, leading to more encounters between the majority white police force and black suspects. A small percentage of these encounters will result in the deaths of black suspects. For both of these reasons, suspects shot by a color-blind police force will be disproportionately black, as compared with the overall population,” the study stated.  

A final conclusion
Lott and Moody found that “black officers do not shoot black suspects at a lower rate than other suspects. This finding is quite robust and supports the race-neutral theory that a small proportion of encounters between suspects and police officers end in the death of the suspect.”

All of this data-driven analysis aside, law enforcement officers across this great nation know from firsthand experience and anecdotal evidence that the level of force used on a subject is determined by the actions of the subject — not on the race of either party involved. 

Officers of all races and creeds — black, white, Asian, Jewish, and others — know from being on patrol in dangerous, high-crime areas that compliance by the subject is the clearest path to preventing a fatal officer-involved shooting. 

As always, stay safe out there my friends. 

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