When you look at the number of police shootings in relation to the
population, you find that people of color are shot and killed more often
than white people. The reason for that disparity has been intensely
debated for years, especially since an unarmed black teenager was shot
and killed in Ferguson, Mo. almost five years ago.
There has been
one recurring theory, that white cops are more likely to shoot black
people because of racial bias. Now a new study is challenging that
conclusion. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE:
Since the Ferguson protests of 2014, we've learned a lot more about
fatal shootings by the police. News organizations started collecting
their own data on shootings to make up for incomplete federal stats, and
academics started building on that. Michigan State University
psychologist Joseph Cesario is part of a group that looked at fatal
shootings in 2015. They added in the race of the police, and then did a
JOSEPH CESARIO: The race of a police
officer did not predict the race of the citizen shot. In other words,
black officers were just as likely to shoot black citizens as white
KASTE: Other studies have looked at this question,
but this one comes closest to being a nationwide analysis. It's also
getting extra attention because it's in a prestigious peer-reviewed
journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And that
puzzles Philip Atiba Goff.
PHILIP ATIBA GOFF: I'm a bit surprised that this made its way into PNAS given what they actually found.
Goff is a prominent researcher in issues of race and criminal justice
and the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. He says he
applauds the authors for bringing in new data and trying a new approach,
but he doesn't think they came up with much.
GOFF: It doesn't do
very much to move us towards an understanding of how much are police
responsible for racial disparities. And the things it does sort of lead
us to are things that we already knew.
KASTE: For instance, he
says if the study is aiming to debunk the assumption that white cops
shoot people for racist reasons while black cops don't, he says that's a
strawman because no one in his field actually thinks that.
Racism is not a thing that white people can have and black people
can't. And nobody's research would suggest that it does. That's a really
wild premise based in no research that no serious scientist should be
able to say out loud and then get it published.
KASTE: But the
paper's lead author, David J. Johnson of the University of Maryland,
says some academics do make that assumption, especially in his field,
psychology. And he believes the same assumption is being made by the
DAVID J JOHNSON: I think that you see that in reporting on
individual shootings, where they'll mention the race of the officer.
And the reason that they mention that is because it's perceived as being
relevant. So what we did was, for the first time, tested that
KASTE: Johnson takes pains to say that this study is
not trying to deny the role of race. Instead, what they're trying to do
is narrow down where it's having its effect on policing. He says it also
raises some questions about a common fix for biased policing, the push
to hire more minority officers because if this study is right, just
hiring more black cops will not mean fewer black people get shot. And
that fits with what implicit bias trainers say.
People can have biases against their own demographic groups. Women can
have biases about women. Blacks can have biases about blacks. It is
incorrect to assume that any issue of bias in policing is brought to us
by white males.
KASTE: Lorie Fridell is a criminologist as well
as a bias trainer. She says academics have been wrestling with this
question for decades, and this latest paper is not about to settle
FRIDELL: The defenders of police, of course, will
cherry-pick the studies that show no bias. And the other side will
cherry-pick the ones that do. But we don't have any definitive studies
KASTE: She thinks people should be more open to the idea
that bias and demographics can both play a role. And that's something
that the authors of the paper and their critics both seem to agree on.
real question here is not whether race is a factor in police shootings,
but when? Is it beforehand in all the things that might lead up to a
shooting, such as drug laws or racial profiling? Or does it come down to
the skin color of the individual cop holding the gun?
Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.