Several people have requested that I respond to the paper “A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014” (Here after Ross (2015)). This paper has only ever been cited by 1 academic paper, but in the last few days it has gone viral, receiving over 150,000 views.
The paper is being cited as evidence for bias against Blacks in police shootings. The paper claims to have found that Blacks, armed or unarmed, are significantly more likely than Whites to be shot by police.
Moreover, the relative rate at which Blacks are shot by police within a given county does not correlate with Black crime rates in that county suggesting that racial crime differences do not explain differences in police shooting rates.
This paper has several levels of problems. First of all, it does not tell us why Blacks are more likely than Whites to be shot by police. People citing the paper seem to think that it provides of evidence for racism as an explanation, but it actually does no such thing.
It does not, for instance, do anything to rule out the possibility that Blacks, armed or unarmed, are more likely to attack police officers or to engage in dangerous behavior within the context of a police encounter.
In fact, there is good reason to think that Blacks are more likely than Whites to attack police. After all, Blacks make up a mere 13% of the US population but account for 40% of people who kill police. Thus, Blacks are roughly 3 times as likely as non-Blacks to kill police. This can be taken as a proxy measure of how much more likely Blacks generally are to act aggressively towards police.
This cohere’s nicely with the finding of Ross (2015), which is that Blacks are roughly 3 times more likely than Whites to be shot by police. Police are acting exactly as we would expect them to if they were reacting to the higher rates of aggression against police exhibited by Blacks.
But wait, some may say, didn’t Ross (2015) also find that the rate of violent crime among Blacks within a given county did not correlate with the relative risk of Blacks being shot by police within that county? He did, and, on virtually any narrative, this finding makes absolutely no sense.
If Blacks within a given county are getting arrested more often than average for various kinds of violent crimes than they must surely be interacting with police more often than average as well. Thus, this study is suggesting that the frequency with which Blacks interact with police has no impact on the frequency with which they are shot by police. This obviously does not make sense.
Another way of looking at this is as follows, shooting by police can be divided into two categories: just responses to violent behavior and unjust responses to non violent behavior. Even if you think that police engage in the latter an awful lot of the time, and even if you think that Blacks are disproportionately the victims of it, shooting as a response to violent crime obviously occur as well. Given this, places with more violent crime on the part of Blacks should obviously have more police killings. The only way for this to not be true is if police officers only shoot Blacks for unjust reasons and don’t shoot Blacks when they are actually engaged in dangerous violent crime. This is clearly not plausible.
So, why would a study produce a result that doesn’t make sense? Normally, this implies that one of the measures involved is flawed in an important way. In this case, the relevant measures we should look at were supposed to measure violent crime and police shootings.
Either one of these measures could have problems. Ross (2015) chose to only include rates of assault and weapons related arrests for his measure of violent crime. Ross gives no explanation for this choice, and there is no obvious reason why other kinds of crime, such as homicide, property crime, and, probably most importantly, resisting arrest (!), should have been excluded.
Ross’s measure of police shooting could also be problematic. The database of police shooting that Ross used is crowd-sourced, meaning that the database includes whatever killings random people on the internet happen to add to it. There is no reason to think that this is a representative sample of police shooting, especially not at the county by county level.
Ross uses this database, as opposed to statistics provided by the government, because he thinks that government databases may, themselves, be biased. However, he provides no actual evidence that such bias exists.
In fact, the database that Ross used and the FBI’s paint a very similar macro level picture about police shooting and race. In the database Ross relied on, Blacks accounted for 35% of people shot by police. In the FBI’s data base, they accounted for 32% of people killed by police. Thus, neither seems to be particularly biased at this macro level. (This does not, however, imply that either would be accurate for comparing counties, which is how Ross uses his data-set.)
Thus, the first part of Ross’s analysis fit well with the narrative that police kill Blacks more than Whites because Blacks are more aggressive, against police, than Whites are. His analysis of county level predictors of the relative risk for Blacks vs Whites getting shot by police is not consistent with any plausible narrative and this is likely because both of the measures involved with this analysis are suspect.
It is also worth mentioning that many people are taking Ross’s paper to be a study on police killings. It’s not. It’s a study on police shootings, and that includes shootings which were not fatal. This has two important implications. First, it makes that non-correlation with violent crime even more obviously absurd. Secondly, it means that racial differences in the fatality of being shot by police are not accounted for.
Finally, I would like to leave you with something that Ross does not address: Blacks account for a greater proportion of violent criminals than they do people killed by police. Given this, the more that it is true that Blacks are being killed not because of violence on their part but, rather, because of racism, it is also, necessarily, more true that Blacks who are violent criminals are less likely than Whites who are violent criminals to be killed by police.