In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, some on the Right have been quick to assert that systemic racism in our justice system is an urban legend. Unfortunately, the larger picture around systemic racism in policing is not nearly as clear-cut nor rosy as they present. Ignoring this will only result in ineffective policing reforms and continued tension between police departments and the communities they police.
To support their arguments, disbelievers of systemic bias often point to recent statistics of police shootings and examples of black-on-black violence. While they may be correct that intra-racial violence accounts for a much larger portion of black homicides than police violence, the same data suggests this is also true among whites.
Moreover, this does not dismiss claims of systemic racism. We can’t just assess the raw number of police killings, we must also account for contextual differences. If police still more readily use lethal force with blacks, this is evidence of systemic bias.
But to contradict claims of systemic bias wouldn’t simply require finding little evidence of racial bias in lethal uses of force. It would also necessitate tracking and analyzing racial bias at other decision points, such as police use of nonlethal force, traffic stops, arrests, and diversion. Those on the center-right should care deeply about any violation of civil liberties or tainting of justice.
A deep dive into the research reveals plentiful evidence of systemic bias. Several studies push back on the notion that bias is universally seen at every decision point in every local criminal justice system. Take, for example, a study by Roland Fryer that is often cited to support claims that systemic racism is nonexistent. It doesn’t find significant racial differences in lethal use of force, but it does find significant racial differences in how police use nonlethal force, even with a substantial set of controls.
In contrast, a recent working paper that used data from over 2 million 911 dispatch calls found significant racial differences in broader police use of force and use of lethal force, with officer race potentially explaining this phenomenon. The authors found that when responding to calls in white or mixed-race neighborhoods, gun force rates among black and white officers were similar. But when responding to 911 calls in black neighborhoods, white officers were five times as likely to shoot their gun while black officers demonstrated a much smaller increase in the use of gun force. These findings, alongside the work of other scholars, hardly refute claims of systemic bias.
They may, however, lead to different questions and policy priorities at the local, state, and federal level. Many of these studies can only rely on local-level data, meaning their ability to make generalizable claims nationally even with the best methodology is impeded. To fix this blind spot, we need better national-level data around police use of force — something both Republicans and Democrats have included in their policing reform proposals.
Likewise, both federal and state policymakers could promote racial equality in policing by making funding to counties or states contingent upon their adoption of more stringent use of force policies and the most evidence-informed reforms. However, local policymakers have the biggest role to play — they’re responsible for identifying the points of bias and driving factors within their own systems. They’ll determine if and how reforms will be implemented and if culture change will occur.
Extrapolating the results of one study to say every police officer or department policy is racist is foolhardy and dangerous. But so is dismissing evidence that black people often do not receive equal treatment by our justice system. To ignore the complexity of race and policing will only lead to ineffective policing reforms that fail to account for why, where, and when black and white individuals are treated differently. Policing will not improve, and protests, deaths, and tension between police and black communities will continue if we devalue the lived experiences of those who’ve suffered injustice.
Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a resident criminal justice policy fellow at the R Street Institute. Arthur Rizer (@arthurrizer) is the director of criminal justice and civil liberties at the Institute, a former police officer and a former federal prosecutor.