Examining Racial Bias in Fatal and Nonfatal Police Shootings, 2015

Chris Smith, an assistant professor of sociology, received an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2016 for a project that explores threatening encounters between police officers and citizens. Professor Smith provided this update in June 2017.

How did this project come about? What inspired it? 

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. Although this was a tragic event, there was nothing particularly unique about this officer-involved shooting. However, the mobilization of the Black Lives Matter social movement around this shooting, sustained national and media attention on the issue of police violence against communities of color, and interest in police violence research for months and years following Michael Brown’s death were unprecedented in recent history. As a sociologist who studies crime and inequality, I had a lot of questions about police shootings and the lack of data collection on this issue. While I was in the last months of finishing my dissertation, one of my advisors sent an email to all of his students with a link to one of many news articles about police shootings and asked us who was going to start studying this topic. I said that I would. On January 1, 2015 and every 24 hours for the following 13 months, I replicated an online news search for threatening, fatal, and nonfatal encounters between police and civilians. Deaths by police were of central importance to my data collection; however, as a social scientist I was committed to collecting a more comprehensive set of similar nonfatal events with which to compare the fatal outcomes.

How has it progressed since you received an ISS Individual Research Grant?

The ISS Individual Research Grant allowed me to hire a small team of undergraduates to begin organizing the 11,638 news articles that I downloaded during data collection. My research team has organized these news articles and is currently coding these articles by event into the database PACOTE (Police and Civilian Outcomes of Threatening Encounters). To date, we have identified 2,782 threatening events between police officers and civilians across 2015, and we have completed coding of 1,381 threatening events that resulted fatally and non-fatally from January 2015 to early April 2015. Most police encounters do not result in fatalities, and upon the completion of this database we will have a better understanding of why particular police encounters do.

What notable or surprising findings can you share at this point?

We still have a lot of work to do on the PACOTE database before our results will be ready for peer review and publication, but we have begun analyzing the first quarter of pilot data from PACOTE to examine the role of race across similar events but with divergent outcomes. New to the research on police violence, our current estimates show that about half of threatening events between police and civilians in our sample end with police violence directed at the civilian and about 18% end with fatal police violence. Even though more white civilians were fatally killed by police in 2015, we find that when black civilians had threatening interactions with police, the outcomes were more likely to end in violence than in non-violence compared to whites and Hispanics.

What is the next step?

The next step in PACOTE is to complete coding the PACOTE database and to conduct reliability checks on PACOTE verifying events with external publicly available datasets and testing intercoder reliability. I have a few grant applications currently under review and a few in preparation to fund these next steps. Once PACOTE is completed, we can update the results of the preliminary analysis to model the effect of race and ethnicity on fatal and violent outcomes using logistic regression. From there, we will analyze other types of effects, such as neighborhood and organizational effects, to test the robustness of potential race effects. The final objectives are to disseminate research results to the public and make the database publicly available.

I regularly update PACOTE research progress and publications on my website. In May 2017, my graduate student, Matthew Thompson, and I wrote a policy piece for the London School of Economics American Politics and Policy Blog, “Citizen Science and Crowdsourced Data Collection, not Government Statistics, Provide the Most Reliable Count of Citizen Fatalities by Police”.

We also have a working paper that we are presenting at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Philadelphia. Upon completing the database and obtaining feedback at this conference, we will revise our results and this paper for submission to a journal. This research is also supporting collaborations with UC Davis graduate and undergraduate students. UC Davis graduate student Matthew Thompson will be using PACOTE in his dissertation research to examine organizational effects on threatening policing events. UC Davis undergraduate Matthew Hanna will be using PACOTE for his honor thesis examining the theme of "suicide by cop" in threatening policing events.

Learn more about Chris Smith.