Soundings

Heather Mac Donald
Misfire
A flawed new study finds racial bias in police-on-police shootings.
Summer 2010

The New York State Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings recently concluded that black police officers who wield a gun out of uniform face an elevated chance of getting fatally shot by their fellow officers because of those officers’ racial bias. The report, publicized by the New York Times and embraced by the Obama administration, is a classic example of fitting nonexistent evidence to a predetermined conclusion. Yet however faulty the report’s methodology, it will undoubtedly become a standard piece of anti-cop ideology and further fuel the hostility that makes police work in black neighborhoods so difficult.

Governor David Paterson commissioned the study of the role of race in officer-on-officer shootings following two fatal shootings of black off-duty cops: a Mount Vernon Police Department officer in 2008 and a New York Police Department officer in 2009. The task force, headed by Kennedy School professor Christopher Stone and Zachary Carter, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, found that over the last three decades, 26 police officers nationally have been killed by other law enforcement officials—a risk of fatality roughly akin to being hit by lightning. What typically happens in such tragic incidents is that an officer in street clothes, his gun drawn, accosts a criminal. He is observed by other officers and fails to comply with their commands. Fourteen of the officers slain since 1981 were white, ten were black, and two were Hispanic. Most of the minority officers have been killed since 1995, and most were off duty. The white officers, by contrast, were almost all killed while on duty in plainclothes assignments. Among officers killed since 1995, minorities outnumber whites more than two to one, whereas whites outnumbered minorities five to one from 1981 to 1994.

And that’s the sum of the evidence that the task force offers for its thesis that minority officers who wield their guns while out of uniform are shot because of police bias, while white officers are shot because of nonracial mistakes. The task force rejects the growing racial diversity of police forces nationwide as a possible explanation for the increasing proportion of minority officers among those killed in friendly-fire incidents, though without explaining its reasoning. The report never reveals what being shot while off duty (as opposed to being shot while working in plainclothes) has to do with police bias, though it places great emphasis on the off-duty status of the slain minority officers. It notes the possibility that minority officers are more likely to witness criminal activity in their home communities—and thus more likely to take police action when off duty—than white officers, but declares that the sample of off-duty officers killed since 1981 is too low to hazard any hypotheses on that score. In the next sentence, however, the report concludes from the same small sample that “regardless of location, . . . off-duty officers of color [are] more likely [to be] mistaken for a criminal . . . when they display their weapons.”

Such a conclusion, along with the confident identification of racism as the reason for the alleged higher risk faced by minority officers generally, is wholly unsupported by the study. The task force fails to analyze the behavior of the slain officers, though it delicately acknowledges that “many of the victims failed to comply with commands to freeze or drop their weapons.” That’s an understatement. The brief synopses of the off-duty shooting cases show serious tactical deficiencies on the victims’ part—and sometimes bad tactical decisions by the confronting cops on the trigger side as well—that have nothing to do with race.

During their training, officers learn: When you’re off duty, you’ll be mistaken for a crook if you behave like a crook. Never pull your gun unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you do pull your gun, make sure that you have your badge in hand. If you take action off duty, identify yourself as a cop and keep your distance from the perp. Few of the victims in the study followed these rules, much less the commands from confronting officers to freeze and drop their weapons, as the task force admits. To make its case that racism lies behind the black officer victimization rate, the task force would have to show that white off-duty officers who made similar tactical errors did not get shot. This it has not done.

It’s also troubling that the report frequently acknowledges huge inadequacies in existing data, yet proceeds full speed ahead with its conclusions. For instance, in the New York Police Department—the only department to have collected data on nonfatal shootings—there were four nonfatal shootings of white officers from 1995 to 2009, but none of black officers. Had the task force been able to analyze nonfatal shootings nationwide, it might have reached a different picture of both the incidence and causes of friendly-fire shootings.

Then again, maybe not. The bulk of the report consists of generalized statements from academics and black police commanders about how racist American society remains, a perspective that the task-force members seemed primed to corroborate. The report admiringly quotes task-force advisors Phillip Atiba Goff and John Dovidio: “Because of a range of normal psychological processes such as historical cultural associations, in-group affinities, and self- and group-interest, the majority of White Americans still harbor negative feelings and beliefs about Blacks.” Such “new research in social psychology,” the task force announces, is “the most persuasive evidence we have found [for] our belief that race . . . often does play a significant role in these [officer-on-officer] confrontations.” In other words, the best evidence that the task force can come up with for its thesis of biased police shootings derives from unrelated sources, not its own data. The report places great weight on a single experiment that found that officers in a video simulation took a few microseconds longer to decide not to “shoot” an unarmed black suspect than to decide not to shoot an unarmed white suspect. The fact that officers using the video simulation did not shoot unarmed black suspects any more often than unarmed white suspects—a finding that undermines the biased-shooting theory—is acknowledged by the task force only in passing.

The New York State Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings has not done the law enforcement profession any favors with its incomplete study. While some of its recommendations are reasonable, its call for more “diversity training” and more testing to uncover unconscious racial bias among officers will waste precious resources that could be better spent on tactical exercises to avoid such tragic encounters. Above all, its message that black officers are at risk from the prejudices of their fellow officers is unjustified and poisonous.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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