Evidence-Based Examination of Systemic Police Bias in the United States

Credit: Mike Shaheen

As of this writing, there have been weeks of protests, many violent, in the streets of Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and New York City, with many businesses attacked, looted, and set on fire.

The protests are about the alleged epidemic of widespread and race-based police brutality against Blacks and the lack of confidence, in the case of George Floyd, that justice will be done. The problem with these assertions is that they are false, not supported by the data.

There is no epidemic of racist cops killing Black unarmed suspects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, police killings of Blacks declined almost 80% from the late ’60s through the 2010s, while police killings of whites have flatlined. Meanwhile, in 2017, according to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics Reports, non-Hispanic Blacks were eight times more likely to be a victim of homicide (homicide death rate: 23.2 per 100,000) than non-Hispanic whites (homicide death rate: 2.9 per 100,000).

The narrative that law enforcement in the United States is endemically racist has become ubiquitous in mass media. Groups such as BLM argue for systemic police bias. Upon closer examination, however, the available evidence paints a different picture. The aim of BLM is based on fiction about American law enforcement. The aim is to end the epidemic of racially-biased police shootings of Black men, and that is a claim based on no facts whatsoever.

A broader aim of valuing lives is beyond dispute. Of course, we value Black lives. There’s no government agency more dedicated to the proposition of “Black lives matter” than police in America. You can go to any inner-city police-community meeting in central Harlem in NYC or the south side of Chicago and what you’re going to hear from those law-abiding residents who show up is a fervent desire for more police. They see the police as the only thing standing between them and anarchy.

The charge of systemic police bias is wrong. We can all agree that the video of Floyd’s arrest is sickening and reflects poorly on men and women wearing the police uniform. It isn’t, however, representative of the 385 million annual interactions that police officers have with civilians. A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the U.S. criminal justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution, or sentencing. Crime and suspect behaviour, not race, determine most police actions.

According to the Washington Post police shootings database, in 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people, most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. 371 were white, 236 were Black, 158 were Hispanic, 39 were of another race, and 200 were of unknown race. These numbers indicate that African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops in 2019 (235), a ratio that has remained stable since 2015. Police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In that regard, the above share of Black victims is less than what the Black crime rate statistics would predict.

It’s important to understand crime statistics in the context of the overall demographic data. According to the 2010 census, the racial composition of the U.S. is as follows:

  • White: 223.6 million (72%)
  • Black: 38.9 million (13%)
  • Hispanic: 50.5 million (16%)
  • Asian: 14.7 million (5%)
  • American Indian: 2.9 million (0.9%)
  • Some other race: 19.1 million (6%)

In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published by the FBI, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders and committed about 60% of robberies, though they account for 13% of the population. Most of those African-American homicide offenders are young males between the age of 18 and 35.

According to the Washington Post database of police shootings, police in the U.S. fatally shot 992 people in 2019, 55 of which were unarmed. Out of those 55 individual, 25 were white and 14 were Black. In percentage terms, out of those fatally shot by Police in 2019, 1.4% were unarmed Blacks and 2.5% were unarmed whites. The Post defines “unarmed” broadly to include such cases as a suspect in Newark, N.J., who had a loaded handgun in his car during a police chase.

In 2018 — the year for which detailed race-based data is available by the FBI — there were 7,407 Black homicide victims, 88% (6,518) of which were killed by other Blacks. Assuming a comparable number of victims in 2019, those 14 unarmed Black victims of police shootings represent 0.19% of all African-Americans killed in 2019. It’s important to note that most homicides in 2018 were intra-racial, with 84% of white victims killed by Whites, and 93% of African American victims were killed by African Americans. These numbers are, for the most part, consistent across time. From 1976 to 2005, 94% of Black victims were killed by other African Americans.

By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a Black male than an unarmed Black male is to be killed by a police officer. This is according to FBI data, which also found that 40% of police killers are Black.

An impartial observer from another planet might logically ask: “So when do the protests for all the police officers being killed at the hands of Blacks begin?” The answer is “Not any time soon” because the above numbers do not fit the narrative we’re being told by mass media, various advocacy groups, and politicians.

It’s worth noting that 89 law enforcement officers were killed in the line-of-duty incidents in 2019. Of these, 48 officers died as a result of felonious acts, and 41 officers died in accidents. 49 alleged offenders were identified in connection with the 48 law enforcement officers feloniously killed. 28 were white and 15 were Black.

As Chicago reeled from violent protests on Memorial Day weekend following the police killing of George Floyd, 85 people were shot, 24 fatally, over the course of 48 hours — the most violent weekend of 2020. The city saw widespread protests, riots and looting throughout the city. The victims were overwhelmingly Black.

White elites in the USA are committed to the idea that white supremacy is the dominant modus operandi in the United States. It’s a lot easier to talk about police than it is to talk about Black crime. Rates of violence drive police activity. Police go where people are being victimized and that is predominantly in the minority communities. Policing today is data-drive. it’s not based on population ratios, it’s not based on race. It’s based on victim reports of where the driveby shootings take place. Unfortunately, it’s a very uncomfortable thing for Americans to look at those facts for a variety of reasons, but the facts are as follows. Black men are 14 times more likely than white men to die by firearm homicide. The reason for that is not because the police are shooting them, it’s not because whites are shooting them. It’s because Blacks are shooting them. Blacks who commit homicide do so at a rate of about 6.5 times larger than whites who commit homicide. In other words, Blacks had a homicide offender rate of 16.1 per 100,000, and whites 2.5.

You can observe these disparities in individual cities around the United States. In NYC, Blacks commit 3/4 of driveby shootings even though they are 23% of the population. Whites are 34% of the population in NYC, yet they commit 2% to 3% of drive-by shootings. In Chicago, the disparities are even greater. A Black person in Chicago is 8 times more likely to commit a driveway shooting than a White person is. The face of violent street crime in the United States today is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. It’s simply the reality. We know that by the victims who are themselves overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. That’s what they tell the Police. Most Americans turn their eyes away from that fact.

Many newspapers in the U.S. stopped publishing the race of suspects back in the 1990s. The victim had given a suspect description to the police, yet the press censored this information, which is completely against the public interest. The press stopped publishing the race of criminal suspects because they were overwhelmingly Black and recently several media outlets in the United States have said they no longer publish so-called “mug shots” — photos of criminals after they’ve been arrested for the same reason. They overwhelmingly show Black criminals.

Let’s get back to the main premise of this article. The latest in a series of studies refuting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the more frequently police officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. According to the abstract:

“We find no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers. Instead, race-specific crime strongly predicts civilian race. This suggests that increasing diversity among officers by itself is unlikely to reduce racial disparity in police shootings.”

Additional evidence backs up the last sentence in the above quote. For decades advocacy groups have pressured for more Black police officers among the ranks of law enforcement in order to better reflect the makeup of their communities. According to the 2018 American Community Survey, U.S. Census, this goal has been successfully met:

Nationally, over 15% of law enforcement is Black — a bigger share than the Black U.S. population (13%). However, there’s no hard evidence that improving diversity has led to fewer deadly interactions with the police.

A 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than Black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed Black suspects as their threat perception level was slightly lower than that of their Black colleagues.

If we want to understand whether the suspect’s race has any impact on a police officer’s decision to pull the trigger, we need to do something most social scientists do and that is, control for confounding variables to isolate the effect one variable has upon another.

Four scientific studies have done that already.

The first one by a Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. found no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings. Any evidence to the contrary fails to take into account crime rates and civilian behavior before and during interactions with police. According to the abstract:

“On the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings”

To be fair, Fryer also found that “blacks and Hispanics are more than 50% more likely to experience some form of non-lethal force in interactions with police.” That is, put their hands on a suspect or to use a baton, for example. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior (e.g. failure to comply with police) reduces, but cannot fully explain these disparities. Fryer also found that compliance by civilians doesn’t eliminate racial differences in police use of force. Black civilians who were recorded as compliant by police were 21% more likely to suffer police aggression than compliant whites. Racism may explain the findings, but the statistical evidence doesn’t prove it. As economists, they don’t get to label unexplained racial disparities “racism.”

Fryer concludes the paper with the following words:

“The importance of our results for racial inequality in America is unclear. It is plausible that racial differences in lower level uses of force are simply a distraction and movements such as Black Lives Matter should seek solutions within their own communities rather than changing the behaviors of police and other external forces. Much more troubling, due to their frequency and potential impact on minority belief formation, is the possibility that racial differences in police use of non-lethal force have spillovers on myriad dimensions of racial inequality. If, for instance, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that the world is discriminatory, then it is easy to understand why black youth invest less in human capital or black adults are more likely to believe discrimination is an important determinant of economic outcomes. Black Dignity Matters.”

The second research was conducted by a group of public-health researchers and found that “excess per capita death rates among blacks and youth at police hands are reflections of excess exposure”, not any inherent anti-black bias.

The third study was conducted by an economist Sendhil Mullainathan who studied racial discrimination and concluded that:

“What the data does suggest is that eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially reduce the total number of African-American killings. Police bias may well be a significant problem, but in accounting for why some of these encounters turn into killings, it is swamped by other, bigger problems that plague our society, our economy and our criminal justice system.

The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter.”

The fourth study was conducted by David J. Johnson at the University of Maryland at College Park. The three key findings are:

  1. As the proportion of Black or Hispanic officers in a fatal officer-involved shootings increases, a person shot is more likely to be Black or Hispanic than White, a disparity explained by county demographics;
  2. Race-specific county-level violent crime strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot;
  3. Although we find no overall evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities in fatal shootings, when focusing on different subtypes of shootings (e.g., unarmed shootings or “suicide by cop”), data are too uncertain to draw firm conclusions.

None of these studies has found any racial bias in deadly shootings. Three studies hardly settle the issue for concerned citizens, and one can reasonably argue that more research is needed. However, given the scientific body of knowledge already available, any future research is unlikely to uncover anything close to the amount of racial bias that BLM protesters in America and around the world believe exists.

Coleman Hughes, an American writer and opinion columnist, wrote an insightful piece titled “Stories and Data” quoting the above scientific papers. Hughes argues that:

“The only way out of this conundrum, it seems to me, is for millions of Americans on the left to realize that deadly police shootings happen to blacks and whites alike. As long as a critical mass of people view this as a race issue, they will see every new video of a black person being killed as yet another injustice in a long chain dating back to the Middle Passage. That sentiment, when it is felt deeply and earnestly, will reliably produce large protests and destructive riots.”

Despite what we’re being led to believe, the number of Black people killed by Police in the U.S. has been on the decline. Since the 2014 wave of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the number of Black people killed by police has gone down, according to data from Mapping Police Violence. So has the number of unarmed people of all races killed by police. The number of unarmed Black people killed by law enforcement has seen a sharp decline as well.

The false narrative of systemic police bias has already resulted in targeted killings of police officers. As of July 2, 2020, 28 law enforcement officers have been reported feloniously killed and 28 were fatally wounded. On June 1, 2020, Officer Shay Mikalonis, 29, was shot in the head during a Las Vegas Strip protest of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a result, he was paralyzed from the neck down, on a ventilator, and unable to speak. Officers are being assaulted and shot at while they try to arrest gun suspects or respond to the growing riots. The more violent protesters are allowed to attack police officers and cause chaos with impunity, the more violence it will encourage.

The 2014 officer-involved shooting death of a Black teen Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson put the national spotlight on police use of force and officers’ interactions with minorities. The “Ferguson effect” resulted in officers becoming less proactive in their policing out of fear their actions will be second-guessed by their superiors and the public. According to a 2017 study published by the Pew Research Center:

“Majorities of police officers say that recent high-profile fatal encounters between black citizens and police officers have made their jobs riskier, aggravated tensions between police and blacks, and left many officers reluctant to fully carry out some of their duties. Three-quarters say the incidents have increased tensions between police and blacks in their communities. About as many (72%) say officers in their department are now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons.”

If the Ferguson effect of officers backing off law enforcement in minority neighborhoods across the U.S. is reborn as the Minneapolis effect, the thousands of law-abiding African-Americans who depend on the police for basic safety will once again be the victims.

The Minneapolis officers who arrested George Floyd must be held accountable for their excessive use of force and callous indifference to his distress. Police training needs to double down on de-escalation tactics. But Floyd’s death should not undermine the legitimacy of American law enforcement, without which we will continue on a path toward chaos and destruction.

The criminal murder of George Floyd by a police officer is not at all representative of the 375 million annual interactions that police officers have with civilians, which are overwhelmingly positive. The body of evidence referenced above finds little to no systematic bias in the actions of Police in the United States. In fact, the actual data suggests the opposite — that both Black and white police officers go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

The reality is that crime and suspect behavior — not race — determine almost all police actions and to pretend otherwise only encourages resentful attitudes and actions among both Blacks and whites that separate individuals further apart from each other.

Americans need to honestly accept the facts and stop regurgitating a false narrative promulgated by politically motivated media and various pressure groups that feeds negative preconceptions to the point that a large part of the American public now openly sympathizes with a manufactured reality of systematic racism that is unsupported by the available evidence.

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