MSU research examines how race, gender, and demographics impact crime and police decision-making

Aug 23, 2019

Caroline Brooks talks with two faculty from MSU’s College of Social Science, whose areas of research seem to always be in the news and weigh heavily on our minds. Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor of criminal justice, focuses her research on the correction system as well as looking at how race, gender, and neighborhood demographics impact crime among minority youth. Joe Cesario is an associate professor of psychology who is an expert in motivation, decision-making and cognition. His research as of late has been focused on police decision-making


Cobbina’s new book is titled Hands Up Don't shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter and How it Changed America.

“After Michael Brown died, within two months of his death, I went to Ferguson Missouri and I conducted 100 interviews with protesters and residents,” Cobbina tells Brooks. “And after Freddie Gray died in Baltimore, I went to Baltimore within two months of his death and I also conducted 92 interviews with protesters and residents there. The book is about people's experiences with the police and how their experiences drive their perceptions of the police. But it's also about what galvanized the social movement, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. I also explore how police officers tactics during the demonstrations affected protestors willingness to engage in future protest events.”

“What we do in our lab and have been doing over the last couple of years is to look at nationwide data on police shootings,” says Cesario. “Sometimes we gather those ourselves. Sometimes we look at existing databases and we try to use those data to answer two main questions. One, is their actual racial disparities in a police officer's deadly force use? And two, does officer race relate to the race of a person who is fatally shot by the police?

“For the first question, the way we answer that question is basically to start with the way people usually ask about racial disparities, and that's to compare the proportion of a group that's shot with their proportion in the overall population. With respect to black citizens, for example, black citizens are about 13 to 15 percent of the U.S. population but represent about 30 percent of those shot by the police. According to that metric, there is a disparity there.

“The problem with that is that assumes that police are basically using deadly force indiscriminately across all possible situations, whereas what we know is that deadly force use is strongly tied, not exclusively, but very strongly tied to the context of violent crime. And so then, the appropriate question is actually not, are black or white citizens more likely to be shot given their population? It's actually, Are black or white citizens more likely to be shot given their encounters with the police through violent crime? And once you do that, it turns out that there isn’t evidence of anti-black disparity in fatal police shootings according to that metric.

“On the second question, what we found was that the race of an officer who was involved in a fatal police shooting did not relate to the race of the person who was shot. If you look at all individuals who have been shot by the police and you ask are black or white officers more likely to be the ones shooting black citizens, for example, it turns out that they're not. It seems to be that the race of the officer doesn't relate to the race of the person shot.”

“What I found in my book is that the majority of protestors and residents of Ferguson and Baltimore that I spoke with had negative encounters with the police,” continues Cobbina. “However, there were racial distinctions. So whites were often afforded respect and given the benefit of the doubt by the police. On the other hand, blacks were often the recipients of aggressive policing and racial profiling and disrespectful behavior, and that also included 25 percent who had negative encounters with black officers as well. It's very similar to what Joe was also finding as well in his study.

“But the second finding in my book was that it was the cumulative impact of negative police encounters by residents that really set the stage for the reactions to the killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. The majority of activists who protested were first time activists. Almost 70 percent were first time activists. And the reason why they were protesting is because they believe that Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were victims of injustice and that these were not isolated events. And the reason why they believed this was not isolated is because they themselves had either experienced aggressive policing themselves or indirectly through family members, friends and their neighbors. Many felt a moral and ethical obligation to get involved and to do something and they really desire to affect change. That is a desire to put an end to police violence as well as an end to the criminalization of people of color.”

“For deadly force use, you do see differences between black and white officers, but it's not quite what it looks like on the surface,” says Cesario. “When you look at the people who have been shot fatally by the police, it is the case that as there are more black officers on a scene involved in a shooting, the citizen who is shot is actually more likely to be black. On the surface, it seems that actually black officers might be using deadly force against black citizens more than white officers. However, that turns out just to be due to basic population statistics where more black police officers are drawn from counties that have more black citizens. And so the more of any race that you have in a county, the more that individuals of that race are going to be shot. And so it isn't as though black officers are using deadly force disproportionately against black citizens. It's just a basic demographics question.

“It's useful to note also that when you look at the data, the overall rates of use of force are really quite low. People's intuitions might be that 90 percent of the population experiences use of force against them by the police. But when you look overall across the nation, that number is about two percent. There are racial disparities there, but those disparities even are quite small. So I think it is useful to keep a big picture in mind also when we're looking at the data to say that by and large, most police citizen encounters for people of any race go off without any use of force or any threat of use of force, overwhelmingly so.”

“I argue in my book that, instead of being tough on crime, we need to be tough on the underlying issues that cause crime,” adds Cobbina. “I'm really arguing for this holistic approach where funds are being used on prevention and intervention initiatives for at risk youth and young adults. Dollars need to be spent on addressing mental health, substance abuse and homelessness and resources should be used to bring more jobs into poor communities and offer living wages and provide a quality education.”

“When it comes to the victims of police shootings and the mental health issue in particular, I think the first thing to recognize is everything that police are asked to do,” continues Cesario. “Police are asked to, of course, enforce the law. They're asked to protect citizens. They're also asked to be social service representatives. They are asked to provide mental health services. They're asked to be parents to kids who don't have parents. We ask an enormous amount of police officers. And oftentimes for those who have mental health problems, their first contact in any form is with the police. So we ask the police to do an enormous number of things and to serve an enormous number of roles more than any one person would do if they were, for instance, a mental health expert, right? Then you could at least focus on one issue. We ask the police to do everything. The police have a very, very difficult job when it comes to interacting with civilians who have mental health concerns.”

“I hope my findings get people to understand the different ways in which people are generally policed, with young black males often bearing the brunt of unwarranted aggressive policing,” Cobbina says. “I hope my findings also humanize protestors and provide an understanding as to how and why a nationwide movement emerged, which denounced racially biased policing and the criminal justice system. And I do hope that policy makers and practitioners will answer the call for a much broader vision of justice, one that relies less on crime fighting and much more on community building.”

“What I hope the data show and provide to the public is a better understanding actually of what police officers go through, a better understanding of policing and a better understanding of what those deadly force decisions are really like for the officers and actually the difficulty of those decisions and the high levels of performance overall that officers can achieve even under such incredibly demanding situations,’ Cesario says.

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