A new study purportedly showing that the racial biases of white individuals might contribute to the fatal police shootings of black people doesn’t really add anything to the debate on police brutality towards the black community.
The July study, “Disproportionate Use of Lethal Force in Policing is Associated with Regional Racial Biases of Residents,” reached the conclusion that the implicit biases of whites can explain the disproportional rates at which police officers shoot black people in the U.S.
“Results indicate that only the implicit racial prejudices and stereotypes of White residents, beyond major geographic covariates, are associated with disproportionately more use of lethal force Blacks relative to regional base rates of Blacks in the population,” the study claimed.
The three Canadian researchers, Eric Hehman, Jessica K. Flake and Jimmy Calanchini, argued that these racial attitudes of white residents could be “contagious” and spread to the officers working in the community. The study also found that while white racial prejudice could predict “disproportionate lethal force,” it also revealed that biggest predictor of this phenomenon was the stereotypes white residents had about black people and weapons.
However, there are multiple issues with the study and how it was conducted that make it hard to hold up as an example of why black Americans are being shot at greater rates than their white counterparts. The researchers themselves even provide multiple caveats to the results of their study.
One major problem the researchers admit is that they aren’t able to establish “temporal precedence” because no reliable data on police officers’ use of lethal force exists before 2015.
“Reliable data on lethal force do not exist prior to 2015 so we are limited in our ability to establish temporal precedence. Consequently, we can only conclude that an association exists between racial biases and lethal force, and future research can build upon this finding, providing more evidence of causal relationships,” the researchers noted.
Temporal precedence helps establish a cause-effect relationship between two events; without the prior data on police use of force, it’s hard for the researchers to prove that there is a casual relationship between the disproportionate police shootings of black people and white residents’ implicit biases.
Another problem is the researchers used data on implicit bias collected from 2003-2013 but compared it to police use of force data from 2015.
“Another limitation is that our lethal force data is from 2015, whereas our racial bias data were collected between 2003 and 2013,” the researchers noted. They added that implicit bias measurements have been relatively stable each year, but it’s a little hard to measure data that comes from two different eras to find a relationship between implicit bias and fatal police shootings.
Another big issue in the study is where the researchers drew their data on fatal police shootings. They used information from The Guardian, a newspaper outlet. The Guardian relies on crowdsourcing to track fatal police shootings in America, often drawing on information from their own reporters and other journalists.
“The Counted is the most thorough public accounting for deadly use of force in the US, but it will operate as an imperfect work in progress – and will be updated by Guardian reporters and interactive journalists as frequently and as promptly as possible.” the outlet noted about their police tracker.
The researchers also admitted that their results might not even point to implicit bias as the reason for more police shootings of black people. The results could show that some black people are acting violently against police officers, which results in a “more justifiable use of force,” they wrote.
“One interpretation of these results is that Whites’ biases create a racially charged atmosphere that contributes to police killing Blacks disproportionately. Alternatively, Blacks in some regions may be more violent when interacting with police, resulting in more justifiable lethal force, in turn influencing the prejudice and stereotypes about Blacks held by people in the region. Importantly, because of the correlational nature of the analyses, we cannot rule out either interpretation.”
Regardless of these issues with the study, various media outlets ran headlines declaring that white racism correlated to the fatal shootings of black people in America. Most of the outlets buried the caveats to the study, if they even covered the limitations to it at all.
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