American Sociological Association

Black lives and police tactics matter

October 16, 2017

by Rory Kramer, Brianna Remster, and Camille Z. Charles in the Summer 2017 Contexts

Do police provide a public good or do they perpetuate racial inequality? Like most institutions, they do both. Nonetheless, thanks to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, and hundreds of others, this blunt question remains at the heart of political debate. Social movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Say Her Name, focused on civilian deaths at the hands of cops, have changed national discourse around what cops should be doing—and how they should do it.

Of course, social movements inspire responses. Two slogans, in particular, are especially indicative of negative reactions to BLM: “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” The first assumes that BLM suggests that Black lives matter more than others, while the latter asserts that critiques of the police, such as those lodged by BLM, have created a backlash—sometimes called the “Ferguson effect” in reference to Mike Brown’s death in Missouri—that feeds mistrust and hampers policing, incites violence against police officers, and makes everyone less safe. If the core divide between Black Lives Matter and All/Blue Lives Matter is whether Black people are more likely to experience violence at the hands of police than other Americans, then we need to know the answer.

As sociologists of race and crime, we were surprised to discover that there have been few systematic analyses of disparities in police use of force. Among those, none examines the specific intersectional claims made by activists on both “sides” of the issue. One big reason is a lack of good data—government data and crowd-sourced data like that produced by the newspaper The Guardian’s project, “The Counted,” consider only deaths or shootings at the hands of the police. Without a comparison group (such as non-fatal police encounters) and without adjusting for completing explanations for variations in victimization, it is hard to draw any meaningful conclusions. Fortunately, there is an alternative data source: New York Police Department (NYPD) records all investigatory civilian stops, regardless of whether or not they involve the use of force. We harness these city-wide data to investigate whether police use more force against Black individuals (particularly Black youth) than Whites and whether and how gender factors into this equation.

studying police encounters

Despite sustained outrage around police use of force on Black bodies, research has lagged. For instance, just because “The Counted” finds that Black people were more likely than Whites to be killed by police in 2016, it does not necessarily mean that police are racially biased. Perhaps the most common justification police offer for the overrepresentation of Black victims in use of force incidents is that it follows from racial disparities in crime rates. In this scenario, if police use of force is random across civilian interactions, but Blacks commit more crime, any racial disparities in shootings could very well be the result of Blacks’ greater contact with police. It’s a simple, if stereotypical and damaging, narrative, and it shows why it is imperative that any estimates of disparities in police violence adjust for crime rates by race.

Further, in each of the most infamous recent deaths in connection with law enforcement, there have been other aspects of the interaction that proponents of All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter wield as their explanations for why the situation ended in violence. In Missouri, officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as being so physically large that his body alone was construed as a deadly weapon; New York City’s Eric Garner was accused of being non-compliant as officer Daniel Panteleo attempted to handcuff Garner, thus Panteleo had to use what would become a fatal chokehold; and Freddie Gray was stopped, beaten, and arrested in a high-crime, high-poverty, and predominantly Black neighborhood—just the kind of neighborhood the Blue Lives Matter folks insist are particularly dangerous to police.

Read the full Contexts article here.

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