Police Brutality and Racism in the US

I know this is a controversial and hot topic, but it has occasionally been brought up on this forum and so I felt it appropriate to discuss in the conversation category whether the police in the US are systematically racist. First, I do not live in the :us:, I live in :de:. Therefore, I cannot and will not draw on any personal experience. Rather, I’m simply going to examine recently published scientific studies on police brutality and I’m going to make the case that racial bias in law enforcement is not as big of a problem as some might think it is.

Let me begin by stating that police use of deadly violence is not a problem in and of itself. Framing every officer-involved shooting (OIS) or police use of deadly force as “police brutality” wouldn’t be accurate or helpful. As Justin Nix (2020) points out:

Indeed, much (but not all) of the time when officers use deadly force, it follows or preempts a perceived imminent deadly threat—either to their own lives or the lives of other citizens.

That being said, it is obvious that cases such as those of George Floyd are examples of excessive and unjustifiable police use of force. However, this still doesn’t prove that there was a racist motivation behind this incident (in my view, racism refers to the intense, salient hatred of other ethnicities, not just some internal bias) and, more importantly, this does not prove that blacks fall victim to police brutality more often than others do. To confirm such a notion, we have to look at statistics.

Looking at these data, we see that black men are indeed 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than are white men (see the Edwards et al., 2019 study below). Now we could say that law enforcement in the US exhibits significant anti-black bias. But wait a second. It’s not that easy. For one simple reason: Disparity does not mean bias. For example, according to the same study, asian/pacific islander men and women are 50% less likely to die at the hands of police officers than are white men and women, respectively. Most would consider it absurd to conclude from this that there is some kind of “asian privilege” or that police are biased against everyone, including whites, but not against asians. Obviously, there are other factors at play here.

One big problem with studies like these is that they are population-based, meaning that the ethnic distribution of the general population is used as a benchmark to contextualize racial disparities in OIS. While this might be a good way to measure lifetime risk of being shot by police, this method is inappropriate when trying to elucidate the causes behind such disparities. Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean: Women are 20x less likely to be shot by police then are men. However, women and men make up approximately 50% of the US population each, leading us to expect that they should be equally represented in OIS. Transparently though, this is not the case and it has nothing to do with bias on the side of the police, as many would agree. Males are just more likely to interact with police because they engage in criminal behaviour more often than women do. In summary, population-based approaches are flawed. As Shjarback & Nix (2020) explain:

Usually done because of sheer convenience and data availability, this approach assumes everyone in the general population has an equal chance of coming into contact with law enforcement. […] Recent studies have examined disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings by using a variety of more appropriate benchmarks, including police-citizen interactions, arrests, and crime rates across racial groups […]. The results challenge the notion that Black citizens are disproportionately shot and killed by police. Upon accounting for differences by group in arrests and violent offending, black citizens are actually less likely to be shot and killed by officers during interactions – a pattern at odds with a number of media interpretations.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that. There is much to learn and to discuss. I hope this sparks some fruitful dialogue. Please be nice. I tried to express my views as eloquently and politely as I could :pleading_face: