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Research Questions

  1. What are the data and methodological challenges faced by researchers working on racial bias in police shootings?
  2. How do limitations in data and methodology affect the conclusions that one can draw from existing research?
  3. How can researchers arrive at stronger and more-informative conclusions?

Police in the United States shoot people at far higher rates than police in other economically developed countries. The victims of these shootings are disproportionately Black and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic, compared with those groups' shares of the population. These shootings occur in a society that continues to grapple with its oftentimes racist history, one that, to this day, remains beset with pervasive racial inequality.

In this report, the authors discuss methodological and data challenges for studying racial bias in police shootings and implications for assessing available evidence (as of early 2024) on this topic. They explore the importance of thinking of racial bias as a process with a series of stages, the data that are available to study bias in shootings, the main methods that have been used and their limitations, and how researchers ought to proceed to arrive at stronger and more-informative conclusions.

Key Findings

  • The impact of police shootings is severe — particularly for communities of color in the United States — and more-nuanced research is needed to understand the dynamics of racial bias.
  • Thinking of racial bias in police shootings as a process with a series of stages can improve research in this area. These stages include officers' encounters with civilians, use of force, and the type of force used.
  • Fully unpacking how racial bias operates in police shootings is challenging due to data limitations. These limitations include unreliable federal and crowd-sourced datasets, and the problem is particularly severe for non-fatal shootings.
  • The most common forms of tests — benchmark and outcome tests — face significant challenges in inferring bias that research has only started to confront.
  • The authors recommend several ways to improve understanding of the dynamics of racial bias in police shootings: better data, clearer definitions, better methods, and the use of bounding and sensitivity analyses.

Recommendations

  • Going forward, research on race and police shootings will be improved by asking when and where there is racial bias rather than whether there is bias.
  • Innovations to methods and improved data collection are needed to yield stronger answers about the degree of racial bias in police shootings.
  • Researchers should be clear in defining what they are trying to estimate when examining bias in quantitative studies.
  • Research could be improved with greater transparency about the sensitivity of one's conclusions and more recognition of uncertainty.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was funded by a grant from Arnold Ventures and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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