Officer Characteristics and Fatal Shootings

The Study

If the police are racist, you would expect to see white officers shooting more black suspects than white suspects. Racial animosity, the theory goes, would lead white officers to take black lives at a greater rate. Indeed, this is the reason that the Black Lives Matter movement chose their name: the widespread belief that black lives don’t matter to white police.

If, on the other hand, police are not racist, you would not expect to see any differences here. Officers would be shooting only those suspects who presented a threat, and they wouldn’t consider race.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and Michigan State University looked into this question. They wrote that high profile police shootings of black people raised questions about whether the shootings were the result of racism. The shootings captured public attention, “leading in part to the Black Lives Matter movement.” So the researches trawled through data from the FBI, the Guardian, and the Washington Post and created a database. They analyzed fatal officer-involved shootings to see if there was evidence of racism. After all, “[c]oncerns that White officers might disproportionately fatally shoot racial minorities can have powerful effects on police legitimacy.” Their results:

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 crimes strongly predicts civilian race.

They note that the only other national study of this issue found the same result. (See C. E. Menifield, G. Shin, L. Strother, Do white law enforcement officers target minority suspects? Public Adm. Rev. 79, 56–68 (2019).) The authors noted that the results “bolster claims to take into account violent crime rates when examining fatal police shootings.” In other words, more people of color are killed by police because people of color commit crime at a higher rate. It’s a delicate issue, and I understand why the others used academic jargon to soften their finding. They continue:

We did not find evidence for ant-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity in police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything, found anti-White disparities when controlling for race-specific crime.

These results mirror those of Roland Fryer Jr., who found that police were more likely to use deadly force on white suspects.

The authors conclude that their study shows that hiring more diverse police officers will not reduce the amount of shootings, nor will it reduce the racial disparities in fatal officer involved shootings: these disparities are not the result of racism. Another result was that “violent crime rates strongly predict the race of a person fatally shot. The authors recommend “reducing race-specific violent crime” as “an effective way to reduce fatal shootings of Black and Hispanic adults.” Seriously. Reducing violent crime will reduce the amount of people killed by police. That conclusion should refocus our protests and effort not on police violence, but on violent crime. All this requires is “identifying and changing the socio-historical factors that lead civilians to commit violent crime.

They authors speculate about why there is no evidence of racism in fatal shootings, except evidence that whites are actually more likely to be shot. They give three possible explanations. First, officers may be concerned about being sued for shooting a black person. They reject this explanation because “it does not explain the disparity observed when comparing White and Hispanic civilians.” Second, white civilians may react differently towards police than racial minorities in crime-related situations. Perhaps whites are more aggressive, and therefore shot more often. The authors didn’t rule this out, but they believe more research is necessary. Third, “the lack of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity and the impact of race-specific crime are consistent with an exposure argument, whereby per capita racial disparity in fatal shootings is explained by non-Whites’ greater exposure to the police through crime.”

The authors conclude with some caveats. This study does not conclusively prove that the police aren’t racially biased, because “racial disparities are a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for the existence of racial biases, as there are many reasons why fatal shootings might vary across racial groups that are unrelated to bias on the behalf of police officers.”

The Retraction

The study was published on July 22, 2019. On April 13, 2020, a correction was issued. Then, on July 10, 2020, the article was retracted. What happened?

On January 21, 2020, Dean Knox and Jonathan Mummolo wrote a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, who published the original study. They said the study’s approach “is mathematically incapable of supporting its central claims.” Knox and Mummolo take issue with the study’s findings that there is no evidence of anti-black or anti-Hispanic disparity, and that hiring diverse officers would not reduce shooting disparities. They criticize the authors for saying that there is no disparity in “shootings” versus “fatal shootings.” They seem to be bothered by the fact that this claim was “cited by major news outlets and in U.S. Congressional testimony.” They concluded:

Johnson et al.’s study describes attributes of fatal police shootings. While a contribution, these facts alone cannot inform the relative likelihood of White and non-White officers shooting racial minorities. Readers and policymakers should keep this important limitation in mind when considering this work.

The study was also criticized by researchers from Canada and Sweden who assume that police exposure will be the same as population proportion. This assumption is not true, since violent crime rates are vastly different for different racial groups.

The studies authors defended themselves in a reply letter. They acknowledge that fatal shootings are a different category than all shootings. But they pointed out that readers were capable of gleaning this from their article. They rebutted the rest of the criticisms leveled against them.

Then, on April 13, 2020, the study’s authors tried to head off the criticism. They issued a correction for one sentence in their article. In essence, they changed “shoot” to “fatally shoot” for the reasons outlined above. They let the rest of the article and its conclusions stand.

Several months went by. The death of George Floyd shocked the nation and the climate turned against the police. Meanwhile, defenders of the police were relying on this study to show that police were not racist. Finally, on July 10, 2020, the authors issued a retraction. They discussed their correction, but continued:

Despite this correction, our work has continued to be cited as providing support for the idea that there are no racial biases in fatal shootings, or policing in general. To be clear, our work does not speak to these issues and should not be used to support such statements. We take full responsibility for not being careful enough with the inferences made in our original report, as this directly led to the misunderstanding of our research.

While our data and statistical approach were appropriate for investigating whether officer characteristics are related to the race of civilians fatally shot by police, they are inadequate to address racial disparities in the probability of being shot.

Given these issues and the continued use of our work in the public debate on this topic, we have decided to retract the article.

The authors originally cited to the work of Heather Mac Donald to explain their retraction. She had written about the study, in an article titled, “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism.” The authors said that Mac Donald had unfairly co-opted the paper to argue against the existence of racial bias in police shootings. Then politically conservative news outlets, such as the National Review, The Blaze, and others started to discover what had happened. They accused the authors of capitulating to an intellectually intolerant left. Here’s Heather Mac Donald herself:

Then, the authors amended their retraction statement to remove the references to Mac Donald. They said that “people were incorrectly concluding that we retracted due to either political pressure or the political views of those citing the paper. Neither is correct and so this version makes the reason more clear.”


NPR has a segment on the study. They translated the academic jargon much better than I did.

Here’s the full amended statement.

Here’s a detailed look at what happened from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences itself.

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