Urban Wire What we do and don’t know about race and policing
Sarah Eppler-Epstein
Display Date

Media Name: gettyimages-545601138.jpg

This post is part of a series from Urban scholars reflecting on recent events involving police use of force and shootings of police. The posts represent the individual thoughts and perspectives of their authors.

Two weeks ago, the nation was rattled by the deaths of two black men killed in separate encounters with police officers, and again when five police officers were slain at a protest in Dallas, Texas. This past Sunday, three police officers were killed in a shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In the wake of these tragedies, as people mourn, process, and protest, many of us researchers ask what we can do to help people understand the context of these events. While other blog posts in this series focus on the recent shootings of police officers, this post centers on race and policing, in light of the recent deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. How can we support the public and policymakers as they work to create a country that is rid of these horrific events—a country where black lives truly matter?

What we know about race and policing

The #BlackLivesMatter movement gained national momentum in 2014 following the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Castile and Sterling, the victims of the most recent high-profile police shootings, are 2 of the 128 black people fatally shot by police since the beginning of 2016.

Although police brutality and racism in policing are getting more media attention, “it’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new," as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in 2015.

Polls on citizens’ confidence in the police consistently find a large racial gap. Combined data from the past three years show that the percentage of black people who report having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police is half that of white people.

Research on racial disparities in policing illuminates why. Studies on stop and frisk, for instance, find significant racial and ethnic disparities in stops by the New York Police Department. Hot-spots policing can result in racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops and other interactions with police, as police presence is often concentrated in communities of color.

Research also shows significant disparities in police use of force. One recent study of 12 police departments found racial disparities in most uses of force, such as “hands and body,” pepper spray, and Tasers, even when statistically adjusting for the racial distribution of arrests.

One commonly supported reason why we see racial and ethnic disparities in police stops and in use of force is implicit bias. Numerous studies show that unconscious prejudices affect our perceptions and actions, including in police-civilian interactions, which can reduce communities’ trust in law enforcement.

What we don’t know

One obstacle to research on race and policing is the lack of comprehensive, publicly available data on police interactions, especially around lethal use of force by police officers. As former attorney general Eric Holder remarked in 2015, “The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police.”

Several groups are trying to fill the gap: Mapping Police Violence compiles data on police killings from three crowdsourced websites, supplemented by social media research and public reports; The Guardian has developed its own comparable database. The Gun Violence Archive and a Washington Post database report data on fatal shootings by police, which account for most deaths at the hands of officers.

Even so, researchers know little about fatal interactions with police. As Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight writes, “a web of amateurs, volunteers, and journalists have filled the void left by the government.” The resulting data sources—while better than nothing—are not entirely consistent and lack context that would allow researchers to delve into deeper analysis.

One theme circulating on social media is that in practice, black citizens do not have the same Second Amendment rights as their white counterparts. Although this is a compelling argument anecdotally, we are missing the data necessary to answer this question in a systematic way. We don’t know whether there are disparate outcomes by race or ethnicity in police interactions with lawful gun owners.

With the countless questions we don’t yet have answers to (e.g., How do open-carry laws interact with questions about implicit bias in shootings? Under what circumstances is a police officer more likely to shoot?), it is clear that a first, crucial step is mandating consistent, detailed, and accurate collection and public reporting of data on police interactions and officer-involved shootings.

Listening to affected communities

As the research community continues to ask questions of the available data and pushes for better data, we must involve the people most affected by racial disparities in policing—especially people of color who live in heavily policed neighborhoods—and ask them what we should know.

As we set priorities and research agendas, we must remember what so many of us are feeling deeply right now: our research is not about numbers, but about people’s lives—and they matter.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Race and equity
Tags Inequality and mobility Structural racism
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center