The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force


Despite the importance of understanding how race intersects with police use of force, little research has used police administrative data to investigate whether or not disparities exist. Because the dominant narrative around race and law enforcement is that crime rates drive police behavior, the Center for Policing Equity used data from the National Justice Database—the Center's project to provide national-level data and analyses on police behavior—to investigate racial disparities in use of force benchmarking against demographics of local arrest rates. Even though this is a conservative estimate of bias, the analyses of 12 law enforcement departments from geographically and demographically diverse locations revealed that racial disparities in police use of force persist even when controlling for racial distribution of local arrest rates. Additionally, multiple participating departments still demonstrated racial disparities when force incidents were benchmarked exclusively against Part I violent arrests, such that Black residents were still more likely than Whites to be targeted for force. This method is very likely prone to underestimate racial disparities because African Americans are overrepresented in violent crime arrests but Part I violent crimes constitute only 1/24th of all arrests nationally (BJS, 2012), and previous research has found arrests for violent crimes to involve police use of force only 1.3 times as often as arrests for all other crimes (Worden, 1995). These disparities were robust across multiple categories of force (hand weapon, OC spray, and Tasers).

In addition to these findings and consistent with previous literature, Taser usage represented a large percentage of departments’ use of force. Specifically, residents who were targeted for force were far more likely to be targeted by Tasers than by deadly weapons. While previous research has demonstrated the stark rise of Taser usage (Taylor et al., 2011) and its potential to reduce injuries (Alpert et al., 2011), the relatively high incidence of Taser usage relative to all other categories (it was the second most common category across all departments trailing only hand/body weapons) deserves significantly more public and scholarly attention given that Tasers are also the category closest to use of deadly force in most use of force continuums. It is important to be cautious about overgeneralising these results because of the relatively small number of departments and because we do not know very much about what residents did during the interactions that turned forceful. However, the narrative that crime is the primary driver of racial disparities is not supported within the context of these departments. This suggests that scholars and practitioners should look at racial disparities in other situational factors (e.g., resistance, drug and alcohol use, and officer perceptions of dangerousness) to determine whether or not they explain racial disparities in force.

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