A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014

by Cody T. Ross

Nov 5, 2015

A geographically-resolved, multi-level Bayesian model is used to analyze the data presented in the U.S. Police-Shooting Database (USPSD) in order to investigate the extent of racial bias in the shooting of American civilians by police officers in recent years. In contrast to previous work that relied on the FBI's Supplemental Homicide Reports that were constructed from self-reported cases of police-involved homicide, this data set is less likely to be biased by police reporting practices. County-specific relative risk outcomes of being shot by police are estimated as a function of the interaction of: 1) whether suspects/civilians were armed or unarmed, and 2) the race/ethnicity of the suspects/civilians. The results provide evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average. Furthermore, the results of multi-level modeling show that there exists significant heterogeneity across counties in the extent of racial bias in police shootings, with some counties showing relative risk ratios of 20 to 1 or more. Finally, analysis of police shooting data as a function of county-level predictors suggests that racial bias in police shootings is most likely to emerge in police departments in larger metropolitan counties with low median incomes and a sizable portion of black residents, especially when there is high financial inequality in that county. There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.

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