A claim in articles published recently on multiple conservative blogs and new sites that a new study shows black police officers are more likely to kill black suspects has sparked online controversy, pitting opponents of the Black Lives Movement against supporters. The furor generated by the articles, published on Western Journalism and The Washington Times, caused online fact-checkers to look at the study and question the representation of its conclusions in some articles published online.
Western Journalism published a piece on December 8, 2016, with the provocative headline, “This Blows The Lid off Massive Off Black Lives Matter Lie – They Didn’t See This Truth Train Coming.” The article claimed that a new study by crime research experts showed that black police officers were more likely to kill black suspects than white police officers.
On November 15, 2016, two researchers, John R. Lott, Jr., at the Crime Prevention Research Center, (CPRC) and Carlisle E. Moody, an economist at the College of William and Mary, published a study that sought to answer the question, “Do White Police Officers Unfairly Target Black Suspects?”
Western Journalism claimed that the study found that “a black suspect is much more likely to be shot to death by a black cop than by a white one.” According to the blog, the shocking conclusion of the study could be the reason why the mainstream media ignored it.
The Washington Times also published a report on the same study under the headline, “Black suspects more at risk from black cops — Study upends narrative of racist white officers.”
“When violent crime rate or demographics… are accounted for… white officers are not more likely to kill a black suspect.”
Online fact-checker Snopes accused Western Journalism of cherry-picking. Snopes pointed out correctly that contrary to the claim by Western Journalism that “a study of almost 2,700 fatal shootings… found that a black suspect is much more likely to be shot to death by a black cop than by a white one,” the study authors concluded that available data was insufficient to reach a conclusion whether black officers were more likely to kill blacks suspects.
Snopes noted that the study authors said that there was insufficient data about the race of police officers involved in deaths of black suspects in the period 2013-2015. In the majority of documented cases, the race of the officer who caused the death was unknown. The authors, however, noted that in one data set where the race of officers was indicated, black police officers were found to be more likely to kill black suspects. But in the “Results” section of the study, the authors acknowledged that a number of factors might have skewed the data.
The study by Lott and Moody was based on data consisting of a total of 2,699 police killings for the years 2013 to 2015. The figure of 2,699 police killings, according to the study authors, was about 1,333 more killings than documented on the FBI database.
The researchers said that because of the inadequacy of FBI data, they had to rely on media sources that maintain a comprehensive database on police killings, such as The Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database of national police shootings, and a database called “Fatal Encounters,” maintained by journalist Brian Burghart, that tracks in-custody deaths.
But the media databases often failed to indicate the race of officers involved in killings. The study authors noted, for instance, that data obtained from media sources gave no information about the ethnicity of the officer involved in 67 percent of the fatal cases.
Due to the fact that the relevant FBI data were incomplete and the data obtained from media sources often failed to mention the race of the police officer involved in a killing, the researchers were forced to compile the data they needed by searching through media reports and matching names of officers with police department photos or through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Data compiled by the researchers showed that out of 2,699 police officer-involved killings, 25 percent of the suspects killed were black, 45 percent were white, and 16 percent were Hispanic. The balance of 14 percent was made up of Asians, Native Americans, and other groups. Of the data set where the officers’ race was indicated, 29 percent were white, 2 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic. The racial identity of the balance of 67 percent was unknown.
However, the purpose of the study was not to find out whether black officers were more likely to kill black suspects, but whether white police officers were more likely to kill black suspects. And with regard to the question whether white police officers were more likely to kill black suspects, the study reached a firm conclusion that available data show that white officers were not “significantly more likely to kill a black suspect.”
“The bottom line, at the very least is, white officers aren’t shooting black suspects at a higher rate than other officers are.”
“When either the violent crime rate or the demographics of a city are accounted for, we find that white police officers are not significantly more likely to kill a black suspect,” the study authors concluded.
However, media reports appeared to ignore the actual purpose and conclusion of the study and focused instead on whether the study concluded that black police officers were more likely to kill black suspects than white police officers. But contrary to the claims by Western Journalism and The Washington Times, the study did not conclude that black police officers were more likely to kill black suspects. Rather, the authors stated in the “summary and conclusion” section of their study that because most of the data did not indicate the race of the officer, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that there was a “statistically significant difference between killings of black suspects by black and white officers.”
“Unknown race officers do not kill black suspects at a different rate than white officers. Given that this unknown group likely contains a greater share of black officers than their share of all police officers, the result that unknown officers are less likely to kill black suspects than whites raises caution concerning any conclusions that black officers kill black suspects at a higher rate than other officers.”
Snopes also cited Nick Selby, author of In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians, who agreed that the available data was insufficient to conclude that black officers were more likely to kill black suspects. He also agreed with Lott and his colleague that available data also offer no evidence that white officers were more likely to kill black suspects than police officers of other racial identities.
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