Half of threatening encounters end with violence, racial bias exists
Chris Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, started collecting data about violent police encounters in 2015 while wrapping up her Ph.D. project.
“It was a good year to collect data, and I wasn’t the only one working on this,” Smith said. “The Guardian was doing a similar project, The Washington Post was doing a similar project. The Bureau of Justice Statistics was using online news reports to start double fact-checking their own work because their work was criticized for only picking up 50 percent of the cases.”
Beginning in January 2015, Smith ran a Google search for local news sources’ reports of threatening encounters between civilians and police officers. Every day for 13 months, the search would pull up dozens of articles from both big cities and little towns across the United States. The fruits of this labor were 11,000 articles depicting 5,000 threatening encounters. All of these encounters collectively constitute the Police and Civilian Outcomes of Threatening Encounters (PACOTE) database.
“The big contribution that makes my project so different is that I’m looking at threatening encounters compared to just counting the fatal cases,” Smith said.
Police departments in the United States are a hodgepodge of 18,000 local, county, state and federal agencies. Some departments prefer to operate independently of a federal agency like the Department of Justice or the FBI. Reporting every threatening encounter between civilians and police to a centralized agency is a lot of work, and there are few incentives to fill out supplemental forms detailing how a civilian was injured or killed by an officer.
Even small towns often have a dedicated crime blogger for a local newspaper who reports on police interactions. The large PACOTE database provides evidence that media sources often contain more reliable information about police use of force than federal agencies. To sift through the dataset and make sense of all these encounters, Smith assembled a team of undergraduate students to read each article and create unique IDs for each event.
“The characteristics we’re coding are the civilian’s name, age, race, gender, status and whether or not they were armed,” said Cierra Bordwine, a third-year sociology student working on the PACOTE project. “Their status could be whether or not they were on drugs, intoxicated from alcohol, a mental illness or if they were suicidal at the time. Then it’s the same stuff for the police officer, except for status, whether or not they were off duty or on duty. We go through the articles, and as we read them, we have that event ID, and we’re filling out the different variables.”
The PACOTE database includes events resulting in the death of a civilian by a police officer, but also include other forms of violence and use of force by police departments.
“It’s not just fatal shootings,” said Matthew Thompson, a sociology Ph.D. candidate working on the PACOTE project. “We have non-fatal shootings, we have attempted shootings — where an officer shoots at somebody, but doesn’t hit anything. Then other forms of violence — tasers, beatings, batons, use of a vehicle as a weapon and then direct verbal threats. We also capture situations where there was an expectation of violence, but it was resolved with no use of violence.”
Preliminary results from the first three months of 2015 revealed that 46.6 percent of the 1,501 threatening encounters recorded resulted in violence against civilians, while 17.8 percent of the total encounters recorded resulted in a civilian fatality.
“Once we consider level of force, the patterns are even more interesting,” Thompson said. “Across the board, African Americans experience more force. But white men experience disproportionate amounts of fatal violence. This indicates that the threshold for using violence against a white man is higher, but when they do use violence, it is disproportionately fatal violence.”
To determine how to classify the race of the civilian victims, Smith’s team looked at images of the civilians when included in news reports.
“We’re using perceived race,” Smith said. “For the majority of these cases, a police officer walks up, sees somebody, and that’s what they decide the race is.”
Smith pointed out that sociologists treat race as a social construct, and people often identify in complex ways. But testing for an implicit racial bias in use of force or violence relies on how people in a social network interact and perceive each other.
In the United States in 2015, while 15 percent of white civilians killed by police were unarmed, 32 percent of black civilians killed by police were unarmed. The disparities along racial lines suggest police patrol neighborhoods in a particular way or treat civilians differently according to their perceived race.
“Poverty and concentrated disadvantage are predictors of crime,” Thompson said. “But there’s these risk assessments in sentencing aspects, with police being embedded in a larger criminal justice system, where the whole system is about managing risks to society in general. You end up identifying these risky populations by these characteristics, and then we direct policing attention to those populations. Right now, those populations are young men of color. That directs policing attention, which feeds back into the system — if police are paying attention to these groups, that also drives crime rates and arrest rates. There are other groups that are not being paid attention to. This is why white-collar crime never gets the same arrests or attention, because police are focusing more on these other types of crimes.”
Smith originally began the PACOTE project after unarmed Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. The response to this officer-involved shooting led to protests for weeks after the shooting, riot squads arriving to disrupt crowds, a midnight curfew to discourage nighttime gatherings and the galvanization of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Police have been killing black men in these communities for a long time,” Thompson said. “This is not a new problem. What’s changed is the visibility of it outside of just the black community. White communities have either rediscovered this problem or are being forced to deal with it for the first time. New information and technologies are allowing communities that are seeing it across the nation to connect it to a larger pattern. It’s not just a local story anymore. People are making the connection [that] it’s an institutional problem. It’s not just bad apples — it can’t just be bad apples — because if it was, it would be happening randomly across the country. But it’s concentrated in these specific places.”
Improved data from local police forces and federal agencies about civilian encounters with officers could help encourage methods of policing which reduce civilian violence. Incentives could be created for local departments to catalog and report threatening encounters between police and civilians, helping to fill in some of the data gaps.
“There’s a lot of missing data,” Bordwine said. “We don’t know, right now, the mechanisms that lead to fatal interactions with police. That’s why I wanted to get into it, to be able to contribute to that discussion on what we need to fix and where the actual problem is.”
Smarter and more sensitive reporting from journalists can help shape the viewpoints of citizens hoping to reduce inappropriate uses of force and unnecessary civilian deaths.
“We have our stereotypes of what a typical criminal is,” said Lauren Wong, a third-year sociology student working on the PACOTE project. “That’s perpetuated by the media. But we see through this coding that things are more complicated than they see. I think that this project is a tool of social change that we’re trying to facilitate.”
Complete coding of the PACOTE database will likely be completed by the end of summer 2018. Further analysis will be performed before the full dataset is ready for publication.
Written by: George Ugartemendia — firstname.lastname@example.org