More officer diversity won't cut racial disparity in US police shootings – study

Miranda Bryant in New York
Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Increasing the diversity of America’s police officers will not necessarily cut racial disparities in fatal police shootings, according to a new study which claims that race-specific crime rates are a bigger factor than the race of the officer.

Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday found that as the percentage of black officers who shot in FOIS (fatal officer-involved shootings) increased, the citizen shot was more likely to be black than white. In a similar vein, as the number of Hispanic officers went up, the person shot was more likely to be black or Hispanic than white.

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The authors, led by David Johnson, a social cognitive psychologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the link between officer race and the race of citizens fatally killed are the result of officers and citizens usually coming from the same population base.

They claimed to find no evidence that white officers were more likely to shoot minority groups than officers of colour.

Researchers came to their conclusions by creating a database of more than 900 FOIS that occurred in the US in 2015, including officer race, sex and years of experience, using information from the Guardian and the Washington Post. Researchers then analysed the different factors to try to predict the race of the person shot.

The Guardian’s the Counted investigation found that in 2015 a total of 1,134 people died at the hands of law enforcement and that young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers.

While this latest study by Johnson acknowledges there are racial disparities in shootings, it claims race-specific crime rather than officer race best predicts the race of the victim.

It found that in counties where minorities were responsible for higher rates of violent crime, a person fatally shot was 3.7 times more likely to be black than white and 3.3 times more likely to be Hispanic than white.

“Although officer race was related to racial disparities, the fact that black and Hispanic civilians were more likely to be shot by same-race officers was largely explained by similarities between officer and county demographics,” stated the report. “Because racial disparities in FOIS do not vary based on officer race, hiring more diverse officers may not reduce racial disparities in FOIS.”

While it acknowledged that greater officer diversity would probably have other benefits – such as improving police understanding of communities and increasing trust – it said it would not “meaningfully reduce” racial disparities in fatal shootings.

It added: “One of our clearest results is that violent crime rates strongly predict the race of a person fatally shot. At a high level, reducing race-specific violent crime should be an effective way to reduce fatal shootings of black and Hispanic adults.”

The report also found that of all the shootings analysed, in 56% of FOIS a single officer fired their weapon. In nearly 40% of cases, between two and four officers fired. In the research, 79% of officers were white, 12% Hispanic, 6% black and 3% from other racial groups. Nearly all – 96% – of officers were male and on average officers had nearly 10 years of experience.