Stop using that one study to pretend racism doesn’t exist in police shootings

This week, a new study reported by the New York Times made waves in the ongoing national discourse on race and policing. “Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings,” the headline read. In the ensuing days, conservative media and others who oppose efforts to address police violence championed the study as ‘proof’ that concerns of racial bias in policing were misguided.

While the study found racial bias in every other form of police use of force, the finding about police shootings was what the media emphasized as the story. As a consequence, an entire research body of evidence pointing to the existence of racial bias in police shootings (For example, read this study and this study) was overshadowed by a single study (that wasn’t even peer reviewed). But that study’s findings were inconclusive at best, highly suspect at worst.

The study’s most striking — and most reported — finding was that officers were about 24% less likely to shoot at black people compared to whites in what the researcher defined as similar situations. Upon further inspection, there are a number of issues that call this finding into question. First, this headline-grabbing result is based on data from one police department— Houston. That means that the most audacious conclusion this study can hope to offer is that racial bias may not explain shootings by Houston police.

But even that conclusion is suspect. First, it’s clear in looking at the data that Houston police department uses deadly force against black people at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. For example, since 2013, 57% of people killed by Houston police have been black despite black people comprising only 25% of Houston’s population.

The second issue is the way the study controlled for how officers reacted to black and white subjects in “similar situations.” As the New York Times reported, this group included encounters with subjects the “police subsequently charged with serious offenses like attempting to murder an officer, or evading or resisting arrest.” Anyone who’s been following the series of high-profile police shootings of black people can tell you the police don’t always tell the truth about what happens in these encounters. Police claimed Alton Sterling was resisting arrest and attempting to reach for a gun before being shot. The video disproves both of these points. But by relying solely on police reports for most if not all of the cases used in the study, the study likely overestimates the number black subjects who actually committed “serious offenses.” That means that a smaller percent of black subjects were shot in “similar situations” not because police aren’t biased but because they weren’t in “similar situations” at all. The police simply decided to charge them with “serious offenses” after the fact.

In the end, the study was problematic and preliminary at best. But the study itself isn’t the point. The media — led by the New York Times- took an inconclusive study focused on a limited number of cases and made it a national story undercutting the notion that racial bias exists in police shootings. The fact such a study became more visible than the litany of strong, national studies to the contrary shows us how white supremacy and some of America’s foremost institutions conspire to construct what’s considered “truth” at the expense of black lives.