Be wary of studies that deny racial bias in police shootings

There’s way too little data to make any conclusive claims on the topic.

From left to right: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Delrawn Small, Charles Kinsey and Alton Sterling. (Photo credit Huffington post illustration)

By Anna Almendrala and Erin Schumaker,

Charles Kinsey. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Delrawn Small. Michael Brown.

Conflicting narratives emerged in the aftermath of these cases of unarmed black men brutalized or killed by police. Black Lives Matter alleges that police unfairly target black people with sometimes lethal force, even when they’re unarmed. Those who argue “blue lives matter” say police are usually justified when using force and are unfairly painted as racist.

Unfortunately, there’s little hard data to indicate whether racial bias plays a role in shootings like these. There’s still no federal database about how widespread police violence is, nor any breakdown of which demographic groups bear the brunt of that force. In the absence of statistics, each new study on police violence is treated like breakthrough research, when it’s actually a single data point in a field of study in its infancy. And worryingly, each of these piecemeal reports with unexpected, eyebrow-raising conclusions garner major headlines in the press.

Take a recent study by researchers at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, published Monday in the journal Injury Prevention.

Scientist Ted Miller concluded that minorities are no more likely than white people to be injured or killed during a stop or arrest. He used data that included stats from hospital emergency departments, a nationally representative survey of people’s experience with the police and newspaper databases of deaths linked to police intervention.

A “working study” by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, still awaiting peer review but publicized in a New York Times feature, similarly concluded that while black people were more likely to experience use of force by police, they weren’t more likely to be shot. Figures that came in from Houston even suggested that black people were less likely to be shot by police than white people. This analysis was based on self-reported data from select police departments across the U.S. (Criticisms of Fryer’s study can be found here, here and here.)

Fryer declined to give comment to The Huffington Post.

What should we make of initial data that seems to counter what many have seen in the media or, in the case of black people in America, have themselves experienced?

It’s important to note that these two analyses are just two data points in an underdeveloped but growing field of research on police interactions with civilians, says Sharad Goel, a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and a member of the research project Law, Order and Algorithms, which aims to analyze 100 million traffic stops throughout the U.S. to look for evidence of racial disparities and discrimination. Goel was not involved in either study, but given the lack of a national clearinghouse for any of this data, he hesitates to claim that a single scientific study shows that, once arrested, minorities have similar rates of injury and death compared to white people.

“We don’t have a national database on traffic stops, we don’t have a national database on pedestrian stops, we don’t have a national database on use of force,” Goel said. “It’s not a great state of affairs for understanding police encounters with the public.”

Perhaps more urgently, while the scientific community may understand that this research is preliminary and ongoing, the public may not see that distinction. Careless media reporting of Fryer and Miller’s results, made without context from past studies or other experts, could have serious consequences that extend far beyond a day’s news cycle, said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor of policing equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“When elite media outlets cite people with elite credentials, it has the potential to influence money and power,” said Goff, who has published reports on police interactions with the public. “It’s not really a good idea given how important the topic is in the national media, to our national conversation, and how bright the spotlight is shining, for people to pick it up and act like tourists.”

Goff, who maintains a police behavior database, tracking stats like stops and use of force, explained that philanthropic organizations that want to fund racial justice issues may believe, based on headlines, that there is no racial bias in police shootings. Politicians may believe the same, and not push as hard on legislation to hold police departments accountable.

“This kind of, frankly, irresponsible narrative, saying way more than their data can say, muddies [the] waters,” he continued. “[It] delays policy innovations that can save lives.”


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