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We Need Better Science on Race and Policing

Do academics overstate the case for disparities?

Key points

  • Many people believe there are disparities in how police treat people of different races.
  • Thus far, evidence for this belief has been mixed, at best.
  • We need more honesty, caution, and better-quality studies on race and policing.

Soon after the rioting at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, it was not uncommon to hear people exclaim on social media that Capitol police would almost have certainly treated Black rioters harsher under identical circumstances. Of course, one White female rioter was shot and killed trying to break into a secure area, and many of the rioters have subsequently received nontrivial criminal sentences. Nonetheless, is it possible that police would have used more force had the rioters been Black?

Mixed Results in Studies

On the left, this is taken as a given, at least in some circles. Historically, given a record of slavery and Jim Crow, this almost certainly would have been true in decades past. But does it remain true today? Studies on race in policing have turned in mixed results, and some of my work suggests class issues such as mental health are better predictors of police force than race. Academia also heavily weights toward progressivism, and there’s some potential that progressive academia could put a thumb on the scale against policing given preexisting priors. Indeed, with psychology’s replication crisis, it’s a nontrivial possibility.

I decided to look at how social science can unintentionally mislead public perception by examining a 2016 article published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. This article sought to examine how perceived skin tone predicted incidents of police force in a large law enforcement department in the western United States.

The lede is often buried in these stories, here it is up-front: They found no evidence that race was a predictor of police force.

This, of course, is a big finding; one that goes against the current thinking on the political left and undercuts claims of systemic racism in policing. It’s actually kind of the biggest deal in the whole study.

Instead of focusing on this, however, the authors focus on an interaction between perceived skin tone, race, and force. They conclude that among Whites only, darker skin tone was associated with more police force. Just how much excess force isn’t clear, as standardized effect sizes aren’t reported. But this finding did not hold for nonwhite individuals. In their abstract, the authors conclude, “Results suggest that intragroup bias is a protective factor for Whites, but not for non-Whites, providing an additional route through which racial disparities in policing operate.” But, again, the authors themselves found no evidence of racial disparities in their work.

Race did not predict police force.

Even assuming the effect of skin tone among Whites is nontrivial (which, again, we don’t know without standardized effect sizes), the most one can say for this is that police are biased against swarthy Italians maybe? At best, this study was a missed opportunity to clearly communicate the nuances of the actual data and challenge public preconceptions about policing and race. At worst, academics might be putting thumbs on the scale of anti-police sentiment in ways that are misleading and anti-science.

The United States is not a racial utopia, and we should remain alert to the possibilities of racial injustice in policing and elsewhere. However, exaggerating the evidence and needlessly frightening the populace is also harmful. First, there’s some evidence delegitimizing policing has led to an increase in police resignations and decreased presence in high-risk neighborhoods. This, in turn, may have, in part, led to spiking homicide and violent crime rates in high-risk neighborhoods.

Second, data on race relations show a remarkable drop-off from relatively robust satisfaction among both Blacks and Whites since 2014, even as most practical data on race issues show improving trends (according to data from the Washington Post, police shootings of unarmed individuals of any race are exceedingly rare, and have been dropping).

Third, informing people that they can’t engage in everyday activities without the fear of being shot, as the American Psychological Association did, is simply traumatizing if that is untrue. Creating false distrust in policing can have as many damaging consequences as can blind obedience to it.

Narrative on Policing and Is Race More Nuanced and Complex

It is important to recognize that data on race and policing is complicated and defies easy moral narratives. The good news is that the most extreme examples—police shootings of unarmed individuals of any race—are exceptionally rare, according to the Washington Post database. Overall, more White individuals are shot than Black individuals, though proportional to their census numbers, Black individuals are overrepresented compared with White (but comparison Asian individuals are underrepresented compared to either Black or White individuals; a complication for the "White supremacy" narrative.

However, Black (and Latino) individuals are also overrepresented as perpetrators of violent crimes including homicides of police officers (once again, Asian Americans are underrepresented compared to both Black and White Americans). These numbers can be uncomfortable, even taboo on the left, but we're doing no one any good pretending that the concordance in these numbers is a coincidence. It's fair to note that, for any race, most individuals do not commit violent crimes, and these edge cases should not be used to make disparaging conclusions about any larger community. However, we do need to be honest about the full range of data if we're going to improve the lives of people in high-risk neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the evidence we have available suggests that the narrative on policing and race is much more nuanced and complex than we may think.

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