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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Resolution of apparent paradoxes in the race-specific frequency of use-of-force by police

  • Author(s): Ross, Cody T
  • Winterhalder, Bruce
  • McElreath, Richard
  • et al.

© 2018, The Author(s). Analyses of racial disparities in police use-of-force against unarmed individuals are central to public policy interventions; however, recent studies have come to apparently paradoxical findings concerning the existence and form of such disparities. Although anti-black racial disparities in U.S. police shootings have been consistently documented at the population level, new work has suggested that racial disparities in encounter-conditional use of lethal force by police are reversed relative to expectations, with police being more likely to: (1) shoot white relative to black individuals, and (2) use non-lethal as opposed to lethal force on black relative to white individuals. Encounter- and use-of-force-conditional results, however, can be misleading if the rates with which police encounter and use non-lethal force vary across officers and depend on suspect race. We find that all currently described empirical patterns in the structuring of police use-of-force—including the “reversed” racial disparities in encounter-conditional use of lethal force—are explainable under a generative model in which there are consistent and systemic biases against black individuals. If even a small subset of police more frequently encounter and use non-lethal force against black individuals than white individuals, then analyses of pooled encounter-conditional data can fail to correctly detect racial disparities in the use of lethal force. In more technical terms, statistical assessments of racial disparities conditioned on problematic intermediate variables, such as encounters, which might themselves be a causal outcome of racial bias, can produce misleading inferences. Population-level measures of use-of-force by police are more robust indicators of the overall severity of racial disparities than encounter-conditional measures—since the later neglect the differential morbidity and mortality arising from differential encounter rates. As such, population-level measures should be used when evaluating the local-level public health implications of racial disparities in police use-of-force. Research on encounter-conditional use-of-force by police can also fruitfully contribute to public policy discussions, since population-level measures alone cannot address whether racial disparities are driven by disparities in encounters or disparities in use-of-force conditional on encounters. Tests for racial biases in the encounter-conditional use of lethal force, however, must account for individual-level variation across officers in terms of race-specific encounter rates or risk falling to Simpson’s paradox.

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