Implicit bias toward black men by police is nothing new, and it is not limited to white officers. Black officers can also have implicit bias toward black men because in the case of police forces, that implicit bias is institutional.
This is actually news to no one—or shouldn’t be—but a recent study conducted by a research team led by Rutgers University–Newark dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration Charles Menifield concluded that “white officers do not kill black suspects at a higher rate compared with non-white officers.”
Menifield and his team set out to answer the question “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?”
To answer that question, the team compiled data from all confirmed instances in which police in the United States used deadly force in 2014 and 2015.
Their research found that the vast majority of those killed by police were armed at the time they encountered police, with more than two-thirds of having been in possession of a gun. Less than 1 percent were unarmed. Men comprised 95.5 percent of those victims.
“While only about 13 percent of the American population is black,” the researchers wrote, “28 percent of people killed by police are black.”
While the majority of officers involved in these shootings were white, the researchers attribute this to the fact that 75 percent of officers in American law enforcement are white.
“The large predominance of white police officers, then, means that, all else being equal, white officers will likely be responsible for most police killings—specifically, about 75 percent of them,” they wrote. “Furthermore, if black residents are disproportionately killed by police, they will be disproportionately killed by white police officers, precisely because police departments are predominantly white.”
While there was obviously a huge disparity in the number of black people killed by police, the researchers wrote that the “disproportionate killing of African Americans by police officers does not appear to be driven by micro‐level racism.”
Instead, the study determined that public policies that target minority populations combined with the policies and practices of individual police forces were the most likely driver for the high number of shootings involving black people.
The researchers assert that while many try to blame the disproportionate number of police killings of black people—especially unarmed black men—is the result of a few “bad apples,” organizational theory research suggests that the problem is “fundamentally institutional.”
In other words, implicit bias is to police officers as eggs are to bacon. They go hand-in-hand.
From the study:
To be very clear, we are not arguing that the disproportionate killing of black suspects is racially innocuous. Indeed, law enforcement officers of all races disproportionately kill black suspects. The killing of black suspects is a police problem, not a white police problem. We believe that the disproportionate killing of black suspects is a downstream effect of institutionalized racism in macro‐level criminal policy and meso‐level organizational factors within many police departments. Put differently, our research contributes to the perspective that persistent racial disparities in police killings are driven primarily by prior disparities in racial policing generally: disproportionate killing is a function of disproportionate police contact among members of the African American community. In this light, the finding that minority police officers are actually more likely to kill minority suspects is not surprising, given that many police departments make efforts to assign minority police to minority neighborhoods.
The researchers concede that addressing the problem “will not be easy,” and say that “the necessary remedies for this problem involve high‐level policy changes in the criminal code along with changes in many organizational features that combine to produce observed racial disparities in policing in America.”
“This unfortunate state of affairs is unlikely to improve until fundamental changes in public policy and policing are undertaken.”