A new study debunks widespread claims that white law enforcement officers are more likely to shoot minority offenders than non-white officers are.
The research, which was compiled by the University of Maryland (UM) and Michigan State University (MSU), was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 22.
“There are so many examples of people saying that when black citizens are shot by police, it’s white officers shooting them,” MSU psychology professor and study co-author Joseph Cesario told MSU Today. “In fact, our findings show no support for the idea that white officers are biased in shooting black citizens.”
Cesario said the recent study was the first “systematic, nationwide study to determine the characteristics of police involved in fatal officer-involved shootings,” MSU Today reported.
Researchers created a new database that detailed every officer-involved shooting that occurred in 2015.
The group then contacted each department involved in a fatal shooting to gather information about the sex, race, and number of years on the force each officer had at the time of the fatal encounter.
What they found directly conflicted with widespread allegations that white officers are more likely to fatally shoot minority offenders.
“We found that the race of the officer doesn’t matter when it comes to predicting whether black or white citizens are shot," Cesario told MSU Today. "If anything, black officers are more likely to shoot black citizens, but this is because black officers are drawn from the same population that they police.”
“The more black citizens there are in a community, the more black police officers there are,” he noted.
“We did not find evidence for anti-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,” according to the study. “While racial disparity did vary by type of shooting, no one type of shooting showed significant anti-Black or -Hispanic disparity.”
The data debunked claims about white officers’ alleged racial bias with regards to fatal shootings, but also showed that changing department policy to diversify the members of the police force will likely do nothing to reduce the number of minority criminals who are fatally shot by police, MSU Today reported.
“Our data show that the rate of crime by each racial group predicts the likelihood of citizens from that racial group being shot,” Cesario explained. “If you live in a county that has a lot of white people committing crimes, white people are more likely to be shot. If you live in a county that has a lot of black people committing crimes, black people are more likely to be shot.”
“It is the best predictor we have of fatal police shootings,” he added.
An overwhelming majority of the offenders – as many as 95 percent – were actively attacking other citizens or law enforcement when they were fatally shot, according to the data.
Ninety percent of offenders were also armed.
The number of instances where law enforcement mistakenly believed that the suspect was armed were extremely rare, MSU Today reported.
But those are also often the cases that are widely reported by the media.
“We hear about the really horrendous and tragic cases of police shootings for a reason: they’re awful cases, they have major implications for police-community relations and so they should get attention,” Cesario acknowledged, according to MSU Today.
“But, this ends up skewing perceptions about police shootings and leads people to believe that all fatal shootings are similar to the ones we hear about,” he continued. “That’s just not the case.”
The data also revealed the strong prevalence of mental health-related issues affecting suspects who were fatally shot by police.
“It was truly striking,” Cesario told MSU Today. “This shows how underappreciated mental health is in the national discussion of fatal officer shootings.”
Mental health issues were a factor in 20 percent of black suspects, 30 percent of Hispanic suspects, and nearly 50 percent of white suspects.
Those findings included two specific types of mental health-related issues: suicide by cop, and mental disorders that posed a threat to officers, such as schizophrenia, MSU Today reported.
The study did not focus on the fatal shootings of unarmed suspects due to the fact that such instances were too uncommon to generate strong conclusions, Cesario said.
“Reducing race-specific violent crime should be an effective way to reduce fatal shootings of Black and Hispanic adults,” according to the study. “Of course, this is no simple task—crime rates are the result of a large and dynamic set of forces. However, the magnitude of these disparities speaks to the importance of this idea.”
“Reducing disparities in FOIS will require identifying and changing the socio-historical factors that lead civilians to commit violent crime,” researchers said.
In 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began collecting use-of-force data, which will provide researchers with more detailed data for future analysis, Cesario told MSU Today.