As Black Lives Matter became a national movement, the biggest defenders of police have generally fallen back on one excuse to explain away the racial disparities in cops’ use of force: Black people are more likely to commit crime, according to the FBI data. So it makes sense that police would take more aggressive actions against them.
A new report by the Urban Institute and Center for Policing Equity put this claim to the test. Specifically, it looked at Austin Police Department data to evaluate whether racial disparities in police use of force are reflective of crime rates or economic issues.
The conclusion: No, local crime rates and economic factors do not explain why police are more likely to use force and use more severe force against black residents. While crime and other factors do explain some of the disparities, race alone predicted use of force and severity of force, the report found:
According to the model of use-of-force incidents, a one-point rise in the percentage of black residents increased the expected number of use-of-force incidents by 2.6 percent, holding all other variables constant. The percentage of Hispanic residents had a smaller effect: a one-point rise in the percentage of Hispanic residents increased the expected number of use-of-force incidents by 1.1 percent.
So no matter the percentage of college-educated residents, homeownership rates, median household income, or crime rates, for every increase of people of color in an area, the rate and severity of use of force also goes up. Race is closely tied to use and levels of force.
The same did not, however, appear to apply to traffic stops. Among vehicle stops, the researchers found, the non-racial factors — crime, economic conditions, and so on — “appear to account for a sizable amount in observed racial disparities.” This does not mean racial bias is fully absent from these stops, but the researchers couldn’t detect it in the provided data.
Still, the data on use and severity of force suggests there is at least some level of racial bias in policing — and, specifically, the kind of policing that is most likely injure or kill someone.
“These findings demonstrate that even in an agency such as the [Austin Police Department], which is instituting reforms aimed at enhancing equity in policing, unwelcome disparities remain, indicating that more work is needed within and beyond law enforcement agencies,” the researchers conclude. “Our research also underscores the value of rigorous and impartial analysis of police data — together with public dissemination of the findings — as well as the importance of continual analyses that can help promote and measure change over time.”
The study focused on the Austin Police Department because, researchers said, it keeps some of the most transparent and best-managed data on policing practices in the US. The report looked at use of force data from 2014 and traffic stop data from 2015.
Now, the data focuses on Austin, so it can’t necessarily be applied nationwide — maybe there is something unique about Austin that drives its disparities.
But there is reason to believe that this isn’t a story specific to Austin police.
This isn’t the first study to reach these conclusions
Generally, when we talk about racial disparities in policing, we tend to focus on the raw numbers.
For example, Vox’s analysis of FBI data found black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population.
But critics are quick to point out this may just show that black people are more likely to do something — specifically, criminal activity — that forces cops to use deadly force. There are obviously some gross racist undertones in this claim, but it is the most common retort by defenders of law enforcement. And the data does show that black people are disproportionately likely to be perpetrators and victims of crime due to numerous historical issues, such as poverty, unemployment, segregation, and neglect by police when it comes to serious crimes.
The Urban Institute and Center for Policing Equity study breaks through this argument by showing that even when you control for crime and other variables, officers are still disproportionately likely to use force — and more force — against black residents. So racial bias is likely at play.
This also isn’t the first study to reach these conclusions. Another study, from 2015, by researcher Cody Ross found, “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.” That suggests that, again, other factors are involved in the disparities seen for these shootings.
One of those potential factors: subconscious racial biases. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
That’s why some police departments, with the help of the federal government, have begun taking on implicit bias training to help officers become aware of and control their racial biases. The study of the Austin Police Department suggests that this kind of training really is necessary to eliminate racial disparities in policing.