Covers | March 4, 2017 at 4:04 pm

Police Brutality: A Statistical Perspective



Highly publicized incidents of violence by police against African Americans are often linked to issues of racial profiling and police brutality. While preconceived biases may have played a role in many of these cases, such as the killings of Eric Garner and Philando Castile, each instance of officer-involved violence against a black citizen does not necessarily reflect racial biases. Attributing the same bias to all officers based on a few cases paints an unfair image of all police. Clearly, biases do exist within individual officers in this country; however, identifying the police as one block of people with the same mindset, biases, and behaviors is dangerous if one hopes to understand the racial aspect of police brutality.

All too often, a brutal police officer is presumed to be white and male, even though not all cases of police violence or brutality necessarily involve white policemen. Why does this bias exist, and does the data confirm or debunk this commonly held notion?

To effectively address these two questions, it is necessary to take an objective view of the issue, prioritizing empirical evidence over sweeping statements about police brutality. Specifically, by breaking down available data to investigate the tendencies of police by race and gender, we may be able to develop a more factual and actionable analysis of the role of racism in police brutality than currently exists.

Perception vs. Reality

One key area of analysis is citizens’ sentiments regarding the origin of police brutality. In large American cities and metropolitan areas, women represent about 16.5 percent of all full-time police officers, while African Americans and Hispanics constitute 25.2 percent and 17.3 percent of full-time officers, respectively. Yet citizen complaints against officers in metropolitan police departments rarely mirror those figures. Based on data from the nonprofit Police Foundation’s Public Safety Open Data Portal, in Cincinnati, only 8.6 percent of citizen complaints from 2010 to 2015 were against policewomen. Similarly, in Indianapolis, only 10.5 percent of complaints from 2012 to 2016 were against female officers. For these large, diverse cities, the statistical disparities are further reflected in the racial breakdown of officers who had complaints lodged against them. In Cincinnati, only 25 percent of officers who faced complaints were non-white, and in Indianapolis, that figure was approximately 20 percent. In both cities, over 70 percent of all complaints were lodged against white male police officers.

External information and politicization aside, these figures appear to validate the stereotype of white male officers being responsible for police brutality. Most often, this blame centers on deadly shootings of black males by white officers. Yet complaint data does not necessarily speak to officer culpability; some complaints may be the result of inherent bias or preconceived notions of police intent. Cincinnati municipal data spanning the last 20 years indicates that for every white subject targeted by a white male police officer, 3.92 black subjects were targeted. Meanwhile, for every white subject targeted by a black male officer, four black subjects were targeted. Perhaps surprisingly, this data bespeaks a negligible difference in racial targeting between white and black male officers.

“It’s very difficult to study all this,” explained Justin Feldman, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health, in an interview with the HPR. “But there has been, for decades, research on the influence of officers’ race and their likelihood of using force on a subject of their own race versus a subject of another race … Basically, the finding is that black officers are no less likely to use force against black subjects than white officers.”

Pinning down the reasons for this phenomenon is much more challenging. One potential interpretation lies in the fact that black officers are often more likely to be assigned to precincts with greater numbers of black residents. A Cincinnati Police Department officer, who wished to be identified only as Officer T, elaborated on this in an interview with the HPR. “I sometimes do undercover work, but my undercover experience in black precincts is limited. Black officers are much more likely to be undercover in black neighborhoods and environments because they don’t stand out as much.”

Another explanation may be that black police officers also carry implicit anti-black biases. Studies and firsthand accounts by black police officers attest to this possibility. Neil Franklin, an African American officer who served in the Baltimore Police Department and Maryland State Police, admitted his own previous prejudices during service in an interview with Vox. “When I’d see a young black male in a particular neighborhood, or his pants were sagging a little bit, or he walked a certain way,” he said, “my first thoughts were, ‘Oh, I wonder if he’s selling drugs.’”

Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, efforts to eliminate any racial basis of police brutality by diversifying police departments may be misguided. “I know that in some cities, they’re trying to get more black officers,” said Officer T. “But that didn’t work in Baltimore; 70 percent of their force is black officers. They still had the same riots, the same crime. People often think that having a different color of officer might solve the ‘brutality’ issue, but that isn’t the case.”

The Failings of a Single Story

Of course, nationwide data by itself does not tell the whole story. Other sources of information specific to the region and case, including municipal-level correlations between officer and subject race and eyewitness testimonies, are critical for assessing whether an individual shooting represents a case of police brutality. Data from the Indianapolis Police Department over the last two years, for example, suggests a stark difference in the targets in white and black officer-involved shootings. While black officers targeted white subjects about twice as often as black subjects, white officers targeted black subjects about twice as often as white subjects. The contrast between the Indianapolis statistics and those of Cincinnati, where black officers seem no less likely to use force against black subjects, may be tied to the unique circumstances of officers working in each police department. Thus, drawing one overarching conclusion from the data about the role of the officer’s race in police-involved shootings may not be accurate. However, that message is the very essence of the data-driven method: instead of constraining ourselves to publicized anecdotes, nationwide blanket statistics, and a single conclusion about the entire police force, we should strive to objectively understand the intricacies and variations of the issue. One way to do so is by examining numerical data that specifically pertains to the region or type of case in question.

Data in these contexts may also help to explain the stereotype that male officers are more likely to be involved in instances of police brutality than female officers. Although women represent a visible portion of the police force, especially in large metropolitan police departments, most highly-publicized cases of police brutality have involved male officers. In Indianapolis, only two officer-involved shootings between 2014 and 2016 were connected to female officers. In Austin, over a 14-year period, that number was one. Yet, as before, other sources of data may tell different stories. In Cincinnati, for example, nearly 12.6 percent of officer-involved shootings included a female police officer, consistent with the proportion of female officers in its police force.

The lack of a single conclusive finding may be frustrating to those attempting to bolster their opinions with data, but it does reveal that the situation is more complex than most people imagine. One conclusion that we can reach is that different cities feature variations in police violence and the racial dynamics of that violence because of their differences in community-police department relations.

Officer T explained the differences he sees in his city, where the racial and gender gap in officer-involved violence is less prominent than in other regions.“We’re all trained the same, regardless of whether you’re an Asian officer or a black officer, and in Cincinnati, we have good relations with the public … Our city has gone out and explained why it does things and how it helps, and the citizens of our city embrace our police department because they understand why we’re there.”

Officer T contrasted this example of thriving community relations with what he sees as a more common national trend. “In general, citizens themselves say that they want police in their neighborhoods, like in New York in the 1980s due to cocaine-related deaths,” Officer T said. “After about 10 years of people enjoying the police presence, they forget the original reason for the police presence and begin to view police in a bad light. I think residents often forget over time why police are even there.”

The Power of Data

Looking back at the big questions surrounding the blame for police brutality—why it is so often attributed to white male officers and what data says about this stereotype—the consensus supported by years of studies that white and black police officers are equally likely to use force against black subjects suggests that the notion of individual police officers being racist against black subjects is not accurate throughout the nation. While individual officers’ biases may play a large role in significantly higher rates of violence against black subjects in some places, the real source of anti-black bias in other places may be of a systemic or institutional origin. Therefore, the data may point toward a need for further research into the structure and historically rooted conventions of local legal systems and law enforcement agencies. Such efforts may shed light on sources or anti-black bias that are engrained in regional institutions.

To explain why the stereotype of white male officers being responsible for police brutality exists in the minds of the public, one must consider not only the facts and figures of the present but also their historical context and significance. “History exists,” said Feldman, “and there’s a very long history in the United States of either white police officers or white vigilantes committing explicitly racist acts of violence [against black people].”

Though it is infeasible to propose any single solution to this pervasive social issue, the objectivity, specificity, and transparency of data analysis make it better than hastily scanning for broad, surface-level statistics or relying solely upon emotionally charged anecdotes. Contrary to intuition, using data doesn’t necessarily take away from the emotional core of the issue. Historical data about officer-involved lynchings and shootings of African Americans certainly reminds people of the cruel legacy of Jim Crow racism, and modern polling on the culpability of the police force can reveal the disparate sentiments of different groups of people. Data in both cases may have a strong impact on individuals who feel affected or threatened by these issues.

Feldman expounded on this intersection between the quantitative and emotional aspects of the police brutality issue: “Data can be emotional; I don’t see the dichotomy. There is this idea among academics that social problems are technical problems and can be solved through technical solutions … I don’t think that that’s how the world works, especially on this issue, when data is so politically charged and it does come to questions of politics and power and different groups of people who perceive the world in profoundly different ways.”

Thorough data analysis—performed on a considerable amount of case- or region-specific data—reveals the folly of proposing ineffective one-size-fits-all panaceas, such as increasing the racial and gender diversity of all police departments. Instead, policymakers and social scientists should identify the root of the police brutality problem to suggest more pertinent solutions by analyzing data. For example, data can be used to reveal which police departments feature the most serious epidemics of police brutality in order to more effectively target critical cities. Data may also help reveal which levels of violence different demographics are most susceptible to, thereby improving contemporary understanding of the complexities of the issue. In addition, some solutions may involve improving the quality of the data available for future research. By noticing gaps, inconsistencies, or weaknesses in currently available data, scientists and policymakers—along with the public—can push police departments to release more specific or relevant information publicly. Doing so would increase transparency and improve society’s grasp of the intricacies of police brutality, demonstrating data’s ability to usher in mutual understanding and to make a significant social impact.


Image Source: Flickr/siwc

blog comments powered by Disqus