Threats Perceived When There Are None: Sendhil Mullainathan is one of the most thoughtful people in the economics profession, but he has a recent piece in the New York Times with which I really must take issue.
Citing data on the racial breakdown of arrests and deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, he argues that "eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially reduce the total number of African-American killings." Here's his reasoning:
According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population... But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter...
Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting.
Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9 percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were African-Americans. If police discrimination were a big factor in the actual killings, we would have expected a larger gap between the arrest rate and the police-killing rate.
This in turn suggests that removing police racial bias will have little effect on the killing rate.
A key assumption underlying this argument is that encounters involving genuine (as opposed to perceived) threats to officer safety arise with equal frequency across groups. To see why this is a questionable assumption, consider two types of encounters, which I will call safe and risky. A risky encounter is one in which the confronted individual poses a real threat to the officer; a safe encounter is one in which no such threat is present. But a safe encounter might well be perceived as risky, as the following example of a traffic stop for a seat belt violation in South Carolina vividly illustrates:
Sendhil is implicitly assuming that a white motorist who behaved in exactly the same manner as Levar Jones did in the above video would have been treated in precisely the same manner by the officer in question, or that the incident shown here is too rare to have an impact on the aggregate data. Neither hypothesis seems plausible to me.
How, then, can once account for the rough parity between arrest rates and the rate of shooting deaths at the hands of law enforcement? If officers frequently behave differently in encounters with black civilians, shouldn't one see a higher rate of killing per encounter?
Not necessarily. To see why, think of the encounter involving Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley back in 2009. This was a safe encounter as defined above, but may not have happened in the first place had Gates been white. If the very high incidence of encounters between police and black men is due, in part, to encounters that ought not to have occurred at all, then a disproportionate share of these will be safe, and one ought to expect fewer killings per encounter in the absence of bias. Observing parity would then be suggestive of bias, and eliminating bias would surely result in fewer killings.
In justifying the termination of the officer in the video above, the director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety stated that he "reacted to a perceived threat where there was none." Fear is a powerful motivator, and even when there are strong incentives not to shoot, it is still a preferable option to being shot. This is why stand-you-ground laws have resulted in an increased incidence of homicide, despite narrowing the very definition of homicide to exclude certain killings. It is also why homicide is so volatile across time and space, and why staggering racial disparities in both victimization and offending persist.
None of this should detract from the other points made in Sendhil's piece. There are indeed deep structural problems underlying the high rate of encounters, and these need urgent policy attention. But a careful reading of the data does not support the claim that "removing police racial bias will have little effect on the killing rate." On the contrary, I expect that improved screening and better training, coupled with body and dashboard cameras, will result in fewer officers reacting to a perceived threat when there is none.