Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?

Published date01 January 2019
Date01 January 2019
56 Public Administration Review Janua ry | F ebru ary 20 19
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 56–68. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12956.
Charles E. Menifield
Geiguen Shin
Rutgers University–Newark
Logan Strother
Princeton University
Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target
Minority Suspects?
Research Article
Abstract: The debate over possible bias in the use of deadly force has recently been exacerbated by highly
publicized killings of African American males around the country. While much research has been conducted
examining police behavior, little has been done to investigate the impact of race on police behavior. This article
aims to answer this question: are white police officers more likely to use lethal force on minority suspects or
people of a specific race? To answer this question, the authors construct a data set of all confirmed uses of lethal
force by police officers in the United States in 2014 and 2015. They find that although minority suspects are
disproportionately killed by police, white officers appear to be no more likely to use lethal force against minorities
than nonwhite officers.
Evidence for Practice
• The vast majority of people killed by police are armed at the time of their fatal encounter, and more than
two-thirds possess a gun.
• African Americans are disproportionately killed by police officers nationwide.
• The disproportionate killing of African Americans by police officers does not appear to be driven by micro-
level racism. Rather, it is likely driven by a combination of macro-level public policies that target minority
populations and meso-level policies and practices of police forces.
• Fundamental macro-level policy changes, as well as changes to meso-level organizational practices, are
necessary to address the root causes of racial disparities in police killings.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an
18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a
white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The shooting sparked protests and heightened
racial tensions around the country. The events in
Ferguson quickly gave rise to the Black Lives Matter
movement, which sought to draw attention to
persistent racial disparities in policing, especially
the disproportionate use of force against African
Americans. Subsequent killings of black men by
white police officers further inflamed tensions and
increased the pitch of the national conversation. On
October 20, 2014, 17-year-old African American
Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by a white
Chicago police officer. On April 9, 2015, Walter
Scott, an African American man in South Carolina,
was shot in the back eight times while running away
from a white police officer. On February 25, 2016,
Greg Gunn, another African American man, was
killed outside his neighbor’s home by a white police
officer in Montgomery, Alabama. Charleena Lyles
was three months’ pregnant when, in June 2017,
she was killed by police officers responding to an
attempted burglary that Lyles herself had reported.
These and other high-profile police killings have led
many to speculate that white police officers may target
nonwhite suspects when exercising lethal force. However,
rigorous study of the use of lethal force by police is
extremely difficult. There are very little data on police-
citizen interactions, and even police uses of force are not
well accounted for—indeed, the federal government only
recently passed a law, the Death in Custody Reporting
Act of 2013, requiring police departments to report
uses of lethal force (see Hehman, Flake, and Calanchini
2017). Even so, uses of deadly force have garnered
considerable attention from scholars. Much of this work
has found significant differences in the application of
lethal force by police. Numerous studies have suggested
that black suspects are killed by law enforcement officers
at disproportionate rates relative to their representation
in the population (see Ross 2015). The widespread
belief of racialized policing in general—and racialized
police killing in particular—has had a deleterious effect
on levels of trust between minority citizens and law
enforcement officers (Brunson and Gau 2015).
The causes of the disproportionate killing of African
Americans by police are not well understood. The
Logan Strother is CKF Postdoctoral
Research Associate and Visiting Scholar
in the Program in Law and Public Affairs,
Princeton University. Beginning in the fall
of 2018, he will be assistant professor of
political science at Purdue University. His
research focuses on the intersections of law,
politics, and public policy.
Geiguen Shin is a postdoctoral research
associate in the School of Public Affairs and
Administration, Rutgers University–Newark.
His research focuses on public management
and performance, public sector innovation,
regional economic development, and public
Charles E. Menifield is dean of the
School of Public Affairs and Administration,
Rutgers University–Newark. His research
focuses on budgeting and financial
management, policing, and health care.

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