White Police Officers Far More Likely to Use Force in Minority Neighborhoods than Nonwhite Officers

Hoekstra said they matched this to more than three years of corresponding information about the responding officers’ race, gender and time spent with the department, as well as the type of force used. He said force can include an officer grabbing, punching or kicking an individual — the most common type observed in the data — using a baton, or firing a gun.

To determine the racial makeup of a neighborhood, Hoekstra and Sloan used a geographic information system to match the address of the calls to their corresponding Census Block Groups – the smallest geographical unit of data collected by the Census Bureau – then compared it to Census data showing the race of people who lived in the area.

Hoekstra and Sloan also chose to examine two cities where neither dispatchers nor officers have the discretion to select which officer is assigned to a call. In one city, if the beat officer on duty is unavailable, the closest available officer is then dispatched. The protocol of the other city is to dispatch the closest officer to the call address.

“We picked cities where it would be a clean experiment because of how dispatch protocol works, and where we could get the data,” he said. “For a call in a given location, it’s essentially a coin flip whether a Black or white officer is dispatched.”

While samples they examined do not represent the entire country, they are large enough to draw the conclusion that “race matters, and it matters a lot,” Hoekstra said. “We would also love to replicate this analysis in other cities, and would be happy to work with mayors and police departments to identify if race matters in their city.”

One of the cities has a majority of Hispanic and white residents. Hoekstra said there wasn’t an overall difference in white and Hispanic officers in their likelihood to use force. However, even there, officers were twice as likely to use force in different-race neighborhoods.

But what he called the “most striking” result is that white officers are five times as likely to fire their weapons in predominantly-Black neighborhoods than their Black colleagues. That’s true even though both groups of officers use force similarly in white neighborhoods, suggesting it is not just that white officers are more aggressive everywhere.

“If race doesn’t matter, white and Black cops would scale up use of force similarly,” he said.

Hoekstra said the findings prompt several questions, including whether racial bias drives use of force or if white officers are less skilled at de-escalating or reading situations with Black civilians than Black officers. The research also doesn’t observe the civilian response.

“If Black civilians are more aggressive when a white officer responds, it could explain some of the effect. But if Black civilians are more cooperative with white officers — perhaps out of fear — the effects could be even larger than we observe. I don’t think either response would be surprising, though it’s nearly impossible to distinguish those from the officer’s behavior,” he said.

Hoekstra said the study demonstrates that race matters, even in a time and context during which police departments generally, and white officers in particular, know they are under close scrutiny by media and the public.

The death of Black civilians due to police brutality has prompted widespread unrest across the country after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer pinned his neck with his knee for almost eight minutes. Demonstrations and protests in many U.S. cities have subsequently focused on racial justice and police brutality.

The research has implications for the efficiency of policing, Hoekstra said. And if civilians don’t trust police, “it’s really hard for police to protect civilians and combat crime.”

There are widespread concerns regarding how police officers treat minorities, Hoekstra and Sloan note in the study, “rooted in a long history of police mistreatment of Black Americans.”

“This is reflected both by recent protests over police shootings of unarmed Black males and by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” they write.