Last year, black Americans made up nearly a quarter of all police killings despite making up only 13 percent of the overall population. Compared to white Americans, the fatality rate was nearly 3 to 1, with black Americans 1.5 times more likely to be unarmed before their death. Only one in 100 officers had criminal charges pressed against them, and far fewer were actually convicted. While not every situation is non-violent like selling loose cigarettes or using a fake $20, it’s hard to imagine that 99 percent of the deaths lacked any non-lethal option. 

WTF is going on here? Much of the debate is taking place on social media and cable news channels, which are often flooded with polarized opinions and anecdotal evidence. We suggest a better starting point is the extensive clinical analysis conducted by professional researchers and number crunchers. The following are a few examples of studies published in the past five years that examine issues of race and policing, and they show how much we can learn from the currently available data. Check out what real researchers have to say about the matter. 

“Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (August 2019)

Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. Risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups. Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.

Key point: One. In. A. Thousand. Black. Men. Die. By. Cop. 

“The criminogenic and psychological effects of police stops on adolescent black and Latino boys” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (April 2019)

From a sample of predominantly black and Latino boys in ninth and tenth grades, we find that adolescent boys who are stopped by police report more [frequently engage] in delinquent behavior 6, 12, and 18 months later, independent of prior delinquency…. We also find that psychological distress partially mediates this relationship…. These findings advance the scientific understanding of crime and adolescent development while also raising policy questions about the efficacy of routine police stops of black and Latino youth. Police stops predict decrements in adolescents’ psychological well-being and may unintentionally increase their engagement in criminal behavior. 

Key point: Racial profiling against young ethnic minorities increases their risk of future deviant behavior. 

“Complaining While Black: Racial Disparities in the Adjudication of Complaints Against the Police” in City & Community (May 2019)

Reports of citizen complaints of police misconduct often note that officers are rarely disciplined for alleged misconduct. The perception of little officer accountability contributes to widespread distrust of law enforcement in communities of color. This project investigates how race and segregation shape the outcomes of allegations made against the Chicago Police Department (CPD) between 2011 and 2014. We find that complaints by black and Latino citizens and against white officers are less likely to be sustained.… Incidents alleged by white citizens in high‐crime and predominantly black neighborhoods are more likely to be sustained…. These results are consistent with theories that individual and institutional actors prioritize white victimhood.

Key point: Racial discrimination may extend to how police departments evaluate officer complaints. 

“A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014” in PLOS One (2015)

The results provide evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average. Furthermore, the results of multi-level modeling show that there exists significant heterogeneity across counties in the extent of racial bias in police shootings, with some counties showing relative risk ratios of 20 to 1 or more…. There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.

Key point: The higher rate of unarmed blacks shot by the police is NOT related to local crime rates. 

“God’s Country in Black and Blue: How Christian Nationalism Shapes Americans’ Views about Police (Mis)treatment of Blacks” in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity (August 2018) 

Research shows that Americans who hold strongly to a myth about America’s Christian heritage — what is called “Christian nationalism” — tend to draw rigid boundaries around ethnic and national group membership…. Analyses of 2017 data from a national probability sample show that adherence to Christian nationalism predicts that Americans will be more likely to believe that police treat blacks the same as whites and that police shoot blacks more often because blacks are more violent than whites…. Moreover, observed patterns do not differ by race, suggesting that Christian nationalism provides a cultural framework that can bolster antiblack prejudice among people of color as well as whites. The authors argue that Christian nationalism solidifies ethnic boundaries around national identity such that Americans are less willing to acknowledge police discrimination and more likely to victim-blame, even appealing to more overtly racist notions of blacks’ purportedly violent tendencies to justify police shootings. 

Key point: Christian nationalists of all races are more likely to believe that blacks are inherently more violent and that they are NOT treated more unfairly by the police. 

“Black Male Hunting! A Phenomenological Study Exploring the Secondary Impact of Police Induced Trauma on the Black Man’s Psyche in the United States” in Journal of Sociology and Social Work (June 2019) 

The aim of this phenomenological qualitative research study was to explore the secondary experiences of Black males in the United States who heard, read or viewed the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark by the Sacramento Police Department on March 18, 2018. Utilizing in-depth interviews of Black males candidly shared their experiences. Results indicated that 95% of participants reported a theme of posttraumatic stress related symptoms (fear for their own lives; hyper-vigilance; flashbacks) as a result of viewing, hearing or reading about the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark. Three major themes emerged in the study: (1) emotional reactions of anger and sadness among Black men; (2) psychophysiological symptoms of hypervigilance, avoidance and dissociation; and (3) injustices around Black male bodies being targeted. 

Key point: Black men often suffer PTSD as a result of watching police violence against other black men. 

“Antiracism Movements and the U.S. Civil Sphere: The Case of Black Lives Matter” in Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere (March 2020)

In the buildup of this black solidarity movement, the All Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter movement constructed counter narratives that worked to discredit and neutralize black solidarity. These counter narratives sought to construct BLM as anticivil…. The All Lives Matter movement framed BLM as greedy and self-interested in that by claiming Black Lives Matter, they imply that everyone else’s life does not matter. Likewise, the Blue Lives Matter discourse… constructed BLM as distorted, mad and irrational in their defense of victims of police shootings. Accordingly, these victims “were no angels” and therefore culpable for the consequences of their insubordinate actions…. Lacking an informed knowledge and discourse of racism, and unprepared to deal with growing white populism, mainstream media, regulators, white liberals and other potentially sympathetic outsiders were confused and stumped on how to respond. This helped strengthen the counter-movements by making the online discourse an important framing and agenda-setting mechanism that worked to prevent racialized civil inclusion and civil repair.

Key point: All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter groups exploited the public’s limited knowledge of racial issues to reframe the BLM movement in a negative light. 

“How The Police See Issues Of Race And Policing” on fivethirtyeight (June 2020)

Black officers tend to have somewhat different views from white officers. For example, 69 percent of black officers said the protests against policing tactics reflected some genuine desire to hold the police accountable, compared with just 27 percent of white officers. And a majority of black officers (57 percent) said that the deadly encounters between black people and the police were part of a broader pattern — a view shared by only 27 percent of white officers…. Most black officers — 69 percent — thought that America needed to make more changes for black Americans to have equal rights, putting the black officers fairly close to black Americans overall (84 percent per the Pew poll). White officers (6 percent) were much less likely to hold this view…. It’s not surprising that the police like Trump — he basically ran as the anti-Black Lives Matter candidate

Key point: White and black police officers strongly disagree with each other on issues like accountability, systemic racism and equality. And you know there’s a problem when 94 percent of white officers don’t think we need to improve equal rights for black Americans.

Race and the Police” on The National Police Foundation (2019)

Negative minority community perceptions of police in America have a historical basis in fact and should not be ignored by elected officials, the police or the media. The war on drugs, with its primary focus in black and other minority neighborhoods where stop-and-frisk police protocols routinely subjected hundreds of thousands of innocent minorities to such searches, exacerbated feelings of marginalization and frictions with the police. African Americans across this nation are aware and concerned about the ongoing existence of race-based profiling of this segment of the population by members of some police departments. Cooperation with the police is predicated in large part in minority communities on how minorities perceive the fairness of their treatment by the police.  Disparate treatment of minorities is counter-productive to the provision of efficient and effective public safety services. Personal prejudices or partiality on the part of police officers that interfere with their professional judgment and is counter to departmental policy and training has no legal place in law enforcement.

Key point: Maryland’s first African-American county police chief says racial bias is real and should have no place in law enforcement. 

“An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force” in the Journal of Political Economy (2016)

On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences – sometimes quite large – in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors at the time of the police-civilian interaction…. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.3 (0.04) percent more likely to endure some form of force…. Our results point to another simple policy experiment: increase the expected price of excessive force on lower level uses of force…. Many arguments about police reform fall victim to the “my life versus theirs, us versus them” mantra. Holding officers accountable for the misuse of hands or pushing individuals to the ground is not likely a life or death situation.

Key point: Holding officers more accountable for lower levels of unnecessary force can significantly improve police-civilian relations. 

“Policing in Black and White” by the American Psychological Association (2016)

With more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies across the country operating at the federal, state and local levels, there is no “typical” police department. Still, evidence for racial disparities is growing…. In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, where cafeteria worker Philando Castile was fatally shot by a nonblack officer in July after being pulled over for a broken taillight, statistics released by the local St. Anthony Police Department showed that about 7 percent of residents in the area are black, but they account for 47 percent of arrests.

Key point: Minnesota, we have a problem.

Data for Change: A Statistical Analysis of Police Stops, Searches, Handcuffings, and Arrests in Oakland, Calif. 2013-2014

[Oakland Police Department] OPD officers stopped, searched, handcuffed, and arrested more African Americans than Whites, a finding that remained significant even after we controlled for neighborhood crime rates and demographics; officer race, gender, and experience; and other factors that shape police actions. Some 60% of OPD stops were of African Americans, who make up 28% of Oakland’s population. Of OPD officers making at least one stop during the 13 month period of study: Only 20% stopped a White person, while 96% stopped an African American person; only 26% handcuffed a White person, while 72% handcuffed an African American person (excluding arrests); only 23% conducted a discretionary search of a White person, while 65% conducted a discretionary search of an African American person. When OPD officers could identify the person’s race before a stop, they were much more likely to stop an African American, as compared to when officers could not identify the person’s race. With African Americans, OPD officers used more severe legal language (e.g., mentioned probation, parole, and arrest) and offered fewer explanations for the stop than with Whites. 

Key point: The data strongly suggests that police officers often target individuals based on race. 


To read more clinical research on the matter, add the appropriate keywords (e.g., police, race, shootings, profiling) into a Google Scholar search engine and check out the results. 

Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe

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