This article was originally published on Advocates for Truth under the title “Racial Bias and Policing.”
Racial bias in policing has long been a source of debate in the United States. This controversy has reentered the wider American consciousness since the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 and reached new heights with George Floyd in 2020. Due to these incidents and others like them, most Americans believe that there is racial bias in how police officers treat people of color (especially black Americans) versus white Americans. Do the statistics bear this out? How should Christians think about this?
What Data Do We Have?
Before diving into what the data shows, it needs to be acknowledged that we lack much of the data that would be needed to make the kinds of wide-ranging assessments of racial bias in policing. Many of the statistics available are incomplete, do not always make certain racial distinctions (particularly in separating the ethnicity of “Hispanic/Latino” from “White” as a race), or only analyze small aspects of what is undoubtedly a much bigger issue.
On the federal level, there are two primary sources of information. First, we have the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). This is self-reported crime data from law enforcement agencies across the nation. The FBI compiles this data and releases it to the public. Because this data is self-reported by law enforcement, the data we have available only comes from those agencies which submit that data to the FBI and can be incomplete or susceptible to errors or bias in the way the data is reported. Second, there are the National Crime Victimization Surveys (NCVS) collected by the Department of Justice. This surveys tens of thousands of US households and asks them questions related to crime and how it has affected them. As with any survey-based data, its reliability is dependent on the accuracy and truthfulness of the responses given. Despite their differences, there is a fairly good correspondence between these two sets of data.
Numerous other sources of information exist. One particularly valuable resource is the Washington Post’s catalog of every police shooting since 2015. Many studies are done which analyze specific police interactions (contact, arrests, use of force, killings) or look at specific cities and police departments. These are often more valuable because of their specificity. Studies which analyze much larger patterns are more susceptible to error.
What Does the Data Say?
When thinking about police interactions, it’s important to distinguish between the types of interactions that police can have with civilians. For example, if one were to only analyze civilians killed by police, then one could draw incomplete or invalid inferences. Thus I have tried to categorize different statistics by these various interactions. This section will merely report what the statistics and studies say. I will analyze them in subsequent sections.
An important fact to keep in mind is the populations of each race in the United States. According to the Census Bureau in 2019, the United States is 60.1% White, 13.4% Black, 18.5% Hispanic, and 5.9% Asian. These proportions can vary widely by state.
A. Police Contact
- According to NCVS surveys from the Department of Justice, as a proportion of their population, “Whites (26%) were more likely than blacks (21%), Hispanics (19%), or persons of other races (20%) to experience [any] police contact.” When it came to civilian-initiated contact (a civilian calls the police), “whites (16%) were more likely than blacks (11%), Hispanics (10%), or other persons (11%) to initiate contact with police.” When describing police-initiated contact, “There was no statistically significant difference in the percentage of whites (12%) and blacks (11%) who experienced police-initiated contact.”
- One study analyzed over 100 million traffic stops and found that “black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset.” They attributed this to being unable to determine one’s race as easily after dusk, suggesting that there could be racial bias in the police’s decision to pull someone over during the day. This study also looked at how often the car was searched based on the driver’s race. It found that black and Hispanic drivers were searched around twice as often as white drivers. Despite this, when a search was performed state police only found contraband 29.4% of the time with black drivers and 24.3% with Hispanic drivers compared with 32.0% of white drivers. Municipal police found contraband with 13.9% of black drivers, 11% with Hispanic drivers, and 18.2% of white drivers.
- An analysis of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy concluded, “that persons of African and Hispanic descent were stopped more frequently than whites, even after controlling for precinct variability and race-specific estimates of crime participation.” In other words, it appeared that there is racial bias in who the police stopped and frisked.
- In 2019, the FBI estimates that there were about 10 million arrests. Of the arrests reported, Black Americans comprised 28.4%.
- According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, White, Black, and Hispanic Americans respectively compose 45.9%, 33.0%, and 17.6% of people arrested for non-fatal violent crimes.
- Despite White and Black Americans using drugs at similar rates, Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested on drug-related charges and 6.5 times more likely to be incarcerated. This statistic only accounts for total drug usage.
C. Use of Force
- Surveys from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that Black (3.8%) and Hispanic (3.4%) Americans report being threatened by police with nonfatal threats and use of force more than white Americans (1.5%). They also report that police use force at greater rates against them (5.3%, 4.8%, 2.0% respectively) and that they perceived the force used as excessive (62.9%, 53.7%, 44.3% respectively). This includes force such as being handcuffed, pushing, grabbing, hitting, and having a gun pulled on you.
- One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at two different unnamed cities. City 1 is predominantly white and black and City 2 is predominantly white and Hispanic. In City 1, white officers were 60% more likely than black officers to use force and twice as likely overall to use gun force. While white and black officers use gun force at similar rates in white and racially mixed neighborhoods, white officers use gun force at five times the rate in predominantly black neighborhoods. In City 2, white and Hispanic officers used force at similar rates, although they both use force more often in predominantly minority neighborhoods. This shows how unique racial dynamics in each city can influence potential racial biases that might exist within the police force.
- A different study that looked at the city of Chicago found that “relative to white officers, Black and Hispanic officers make far fewer stops and arrests, and they use force less often, especially against Black civilians. These effects are largest in majority-Black areas of Chicago and stem from reduced focus on enforcing low-level offenses, with greatest impact on Black civilians.”
- A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at fatal officer-involved shootings in 2015 and sought to investigate whether the characteristics of a police officer corresponded with the race of the civilian shot. It came away with three conclusions: “1) As the proportion of Black or Hispanic officers in a FOIS [(fatal officer-Involved shooting)] increases, a person shot is more likely to be Black or Hispanic than White, a disparity explained by county demographics; 2) race-specific county-level violent crime strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot; and 3) although we find no overall evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities in fatal shootings, when focusing on different subtypes of shootings (e.g., unarmed shootings or “suicide by cop”), data are too uncertain to draw firm conclusions.” The study makes clear that their results do not evaluate whether racial biases exist, just that no racial disparities exist in these shootings when looking at officer characteristics.
- In 2019, The FBI launched the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, which started collecting information nationwide on police use of force. However, at this time, not enough police precincts are participating for the data to be released.
D. Deaths from Police
- Since 2015, White people account for about 46% of total deaths from police shootings, Black people account for 24%, and Hispanics 17%. Thus, black Americans are roughly 2.4 times more likely to be shot by police than white people.
- Of those shot by police, 75.7% of them were armed with a gun or knife. Black and Hispanic Americans (75.0% and 73.3%) were not shot at higher rates than white Americans (76.7%) when this was the case.
- Since 2015, 402 people (6.4%) of those shot and killed by police were unarmed. Of those who were unarmed, 42% were white (168 in total), 34% were black (136 in total), and 18% were Hispanic (74 in total). Proportionate to population, this works out to black Americans being 3.8 times more likely to be shot and killed by police while unarmed compared to white Americans.
- According to the Annual Review of Criminology, more police shootings occur in small cities rather than big cities. About half of fatal police shootings “occurred in cities with fewer than 50,000 residents; only a third occurred in cities over 250,000 residents…where the majority of all research on police shootings has been done.”
- Another study in the Journal of Political Economy found that Black and Hispanic Americans were 50% more likely to experience nonlethal force but that, “On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we find no racial differences either in the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.”
These statistics are by no means exhaustive and sometimes lead to different conclusions, but they should give you a general picture of the situation at hand and the variety of statistics available.
What Other Factors Could Be At Play?
Based on the data above, although the evidence is mixed, it seems pretty clear that at least some racial disparities exist. Because of this, many conclude that this inequality is itself evidence of racial bias or systemic racism in policing. However, while this conclusion might be true, it fails to ask harder questions about other reasons why these racial disparities exist.
In response, many have looked at the disproportionate rate that different racial groups commit crimes. This could potentially account for some racial groups having increased interaction with police (and thus an increased rate of fatalities from police). Below are some statistics regarding this:
- According to Department of Justice surveys, the race or ethnicity of criminal offenders is reported 85.8% of the time.
- Over the last ten years, FBI crime data shows that Black Americans account for 46% of all violent crimes and 22% of all property crimes. White (including Hispanic) Americans account for 45% of violent crimes and 49% of property crimes.
- NCVS surveys report that White, Black, and Hispanic Americans respectively compose 52.2%, 28.9%, and 14.2% of non-fatal violent crimes. Black Americans were statistically overrepresented in all types of violent crime, including non-fatal violent crimes, rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. White Americans were underrepresented in these categories except in sexual assault and simple assault. Hispanic Americans were underrepresented in simple assault but proportionate in all other categories.
- Poorer Americans; those who have a “separated” marital status; as well as Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans are more likely to be victims of violent crime.,
- 2018 and 2019 FBI murder statistics show that most murders are intraracial, meaning that both the murderer and the one murdered are the same race. Thus, most white Americans are killed by other white Americans, and black Americans are mostly killed by other black Americans.
- One study which looked at neighborhood-level data found that “predominantly African-American neighborhoods (those that consist of more than 70% African-American residents) averaged five times as many violent crimes as predominantly white communities; predominantly Latino neighborhoods averaged about two and a half times as many violent crimes as predominantly white neighborhoods.”
- Similar racial disparities exist with black people in the United Kingdom in their arrest rates, prosecutions, convictions, and prison population as a percentage of the total population.
Some people look to other factors to help explain these racial disparities. According to Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research, “These differences in crime rates are linked to structural disparities: segregated neighborhoods also tend to be disadvantaged and lack access to community resources, institutions, and means of social control such as effective policing as well as social trust.” Others have pointed to single motherhood and the breakdown of marriage and the family as the greatest correlates to increased criminal activity. It is likely that all the factors listed here play some role in what is undoubtedly a very complex problem.
It is widely accepted that racial disparities exist in policing as well as in criminal activity. However, there is much disagreement to what extent these two things relate to one another or whether other structural issues (poverty, breakdown of the family, police bias) are the root cause of these disparities.
We should be careful in using national data sources. Evaluations that look solely at national data often ignore contextual factors of local police departments (such as the racial makeup of the community or police force). These things have a far greater influence on the racial dynamics between police and civilians than what national trends can show. Racial compositions vary widely by state, by city, down to individual neighborhoods. It is unwise to try and make sweeping statements about racial bias in policing from national data, as it can condemn innocent officers and police departments or hide racism that might exist in others.
It is better to look at data and studies of localities like cities or individual police departments. By limiting the variance from contextual factors, racism that might exist in some local contexts can be addressed without condemning all police officers or all individuals of a certain race.
How Should the Bible Inform Our Thinking?
The Bible does not directly address the subject of racial bias in policing. But it does give us some general principles which apply to this discussion:
- Strive for Justice and Impartiality. Scripture is clear that we need to make every effort to be fair and just in our laws (2 Samuel 23:3-4, Habakkuk 1:4, Matthew 23:23). Of particular importance is our call to be impartial (Leviticus 19:15, Deuteronomy 16:19, Proverbs 18:5, James 2:1-10). If we see evidence of racial discrimination or unfair treatment, then Christians should act to rectify such injustices.
- Respect for Authority. The Bible reminds Christians that government is an institution established by God for our good and that we are to show honor to those in authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Police officers are included in this, as they help to enforce the law to punish those who do evil and protect those who are innocent. Titus 3:1-2 reminds us, “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” These things should characterize the way Christians act towards one another and towards those in authority like the police.
- Corruption of Sin in Individuals and Institutions. It is a fundamental Christian belief that every person has sinned and acted corruptly, falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:9-23). We can see this not only in citizens who commit crimes but also in police officers who act unjustly. Since sinful people work in our governmental systems, it should be no surprise to Christians if such institutions also become corrupted by sin. Nor should we be surprised if patterns of sin are found in our institutions. Many times, this may not even be intentional, as our inherent sin and corruption can blind us to our own faults, including racial biases (Proverbs 28:26, Ephesians 4:22-25, Hebrews 3:12-13).
- Avoid Slander. Accusations of racial bias should not be made lightly, and to slander others or accuse them falsely is also sinful (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 19:16-20, Proverbs 19:9, 1 Peter 2:1). We must value truth above all else.
There is wide agreement that racial disparities exist in policing. However, disagreement arises in trying to explain these disparities. Christians should be careful either way in making broad statements about racial bias in policing. The fact that racial disparities exist is not necessarily evidence of discrimination. At the same time, we shouldn’t overlook or dismiss the possibility of racial bias either. The current national statistics we have are not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions on a wide scale, and until such information is acquired, it may be wiser to look at data for individual police departments to evaluate for potential racial biases. Christians may disagree on the conclusions drawn from this data but should agree on our pursuit of justice, respect for authority, aversion to slander, and acknowledgment of sin’s corrupting influence.
 Keep in mind that national data often lumps Hispanic Americans in with White Americans because Hispanic/Latino is classified as an ethnicity rather than a race.