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New Study Says White Police Officers Are Not More Likely To Shoot Minority Suspects


When you look at the number of police shootings in relation to the population, you find that people of color are shot and killed more often than white people. The reason for that disparity has been intensely debated for years, especially since an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. almost five years ago.

There has been one recurring theory, that white cops are more likely to shoot black people because of racial bias. Now a new study is challenging that conclusion. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Since the Ferguson protests of 2014, we've learned a lot more about fatal shootings by the police. News organizations started collecting their own data on shootings to make up for incomplete federal stats, and academics started building on that. Michigan State University psychologist Joseph Cesario is part of a group that looked at fatal shootings in 2015. They added in the race of the police, and then did a statistical analysis.

JOSEPH CESARIO: The race of a police officer did not predict the race of the citizen shot. In other words, black officers were just as likely to shoot black citizens as white officers were.

KASTE: Other studies have looked at this question, but this one comes closest to being a nationwide analysis. It's also getting extra attention because it's in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And that puzzles Philip Atiba Goff.

PHILIP ATIBA GOFF: I'm a bit surprised that this made its way into PNAS given what they actually found.

KASTE: Goff is a prominent researcher in issues of race and criminal justice and the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. He says he applauds the authors for bringing in new data and trying a new approach, but he doesn't think they came up with much.

GOFF: It doesn't do very much to move us towards an understanding of how much are police responsible for racial disparities. And the things it does sort of lead us to are things that we already knew.

KASTE: For instance, he says if the study is aiming to debunk the assumption that white cops shoot people for racist reasons while black cops don't, he says that's a strawman because no one in his field actually thinks that.

GOFF: Racism is not a thing that white people can have and black people can't. And nobody's research would suggest that it does. That's a really wild premise based in no research that no serious scientist should be able to say out loud and then get it published.

KASTE: But the paper's lead author, David J. Johnson of the University of Maryland, says some academics do make that assumption, especially in his field, psychology. And he believes the same assumption is being made by the media.

DAVID J JOHNSON: I think that you see that in reporting on individual shootings, where they'll mention the race of the officer. And the reason that they mention that is because it's perceived as being relevant. So what we did was, for the first time, tested that assumption.

KASTE: Johnson takes pains to say that this study is not trying to deny the role of race. Instead, what they're trying to do is narrow down where it's having its effect on policing. He says it also raises some questions about a common fix for biased policing, the push to hire more minority officers because if this study is right, just hiring more black cops will not mean fewer black people get shot. And that fits with what implicit bias trainers say.

LORIE FRIDELL: People can have biases against their own demographic groups. Women can have biases about women. Blacks can have biases about blacks. It is incorrect to assume that any issue of bias in policing is brought to us by white males.

KASTE: Lorie Fridell is a criminologist as well as a bias trainer. She says academics have been wrestling with this question for decades, and this latest paper is not about to settle things.

FRIDELL: The defenders of police, of course, will cherry-pick the studies that show no bias. And the other side will cherry-pick the ones that do. But we don't have any definitive studies on this.

KASTE: She thinks people should be more open to the idea that bias and demographics can both play a role. And that's something that the authors of the paper and their critics both seem to agree on.

The real question here is not whether race is a factor in police shootings, but when? Is it beforehand in all the things that might lead up to a shooting, such as drug laws or racial profiling? Or does it come down to the skin color of the individual cop holding the gun?

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.