High profile shootings of black Americans by police officers continue to make headlines and punctuate political debates, raising questions about whether white officers are responsible for a disproportionate amount of fatal shootings of minority citizens.
David Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, along with colleagues at Michigan State University, created the first comprehensive database of fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) in the United States during 2015.
The research team's analysis of the database, published July 22, 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found white officers were not more likely to shoot minority citizens than black or Hispanic officers.
Further, Johnson and colleagues discovered that the strongest factor in predicting the race of a person fatally shot by a police officer were violent crime rates where the shooting took place. In counties where white individuals committed more violent crime, a person fatally shot by police was more likely to be white. The same relationship held true for blacks and Hispanics. Once racial differences in crime rates were controlled for, civilians fatally shot were not more likely to be black or Hispanic than white.
"We want to stress that our national-level findings cannot exonerate or incriminate officers in any specific case," Johnson said. "It's not our goal to argue that there are no racial disparities in all policing outcomes. However, our data do not support the idea that, at the national level, white officers are more responsible for fatal shootings of minority civilians."
The federal government's databases on officer-involved shootings are far from complete, so Johnson and colleagues used more complete lists collected by The Washington Post and The Guardian as a starting point. The research team spent roughly 1,500 hours contacting police departments and scouring department websites, case reports, legal documents and news stories to gather information on officers involved in more than 900 FOIS nationwide in 2015, the first year in which data was collected by these news organizations. Researchers examined officer race, sex, and experience.
The findings have important implications for the development of policies that promote diversity in the hiring process as a means of reducing fatal shootings. While such policies have merit by increasing public trust in law enforcement, Johnson said, they are unlikely to affect racial disparities in fatal shootings.
"If we want to reduce the rates at which people from minority racial groups are shot by police, we need to address differences in crime rates between races," Johnson said. "That involves considering what causes those differences, like racial disparities in wealth, unemployment and education. I'm not saying that's easy. We asked a difficult question, and the answer ended up being difficult."
Johnson and colleagues hope to expand their research to look at non-fatal shootings and other forms of police force. However, they say before any meaningful research can take place, the federal government needs more comprehensive data on police use of force. This year, the FBI launched the National Use of Force Data Collection, designed to gather more detailed information on a voluntary basis from law enforcement agencies about civilians, officers and circumstances involved in use of force incidents. While it's a start, Johnson says, the larger problem remains--data will only be collected from agencies that voluntarily report it.
"We have better information on how many people die of shark bites every year than we do people who are fatally shot by police," Johnson said. "That's a problem."