A new study published in July's American Journal of Public Health attacks one of contemporary policing's biggest questions using data culled from the Dallas Police Department. The central question: Are white police officers more likely to use force against nonwhite suspects?
The answer in Dallas appears to be no, according to the study by researchers in Texas and Florida.
Before getting too far into the numbers, it's important to note the parameters of the study. The researchers considered 5,630 use-of-force reports from DPD, collected from 2014-15. The incidents the researchers analyzed do not include events in which officers shot or used lethal force against subjects. Those incidents, according to the researchers, don't occur often enough to create a sufficient sample for study.
In analyzing the data, the researchers divided the incidents by race or ethnicity dyads — a white officer using force against a white suspect, for example, or a black officer using force against a Hispanic suspect — and by the type of force used. They also used terminology that begs for translation. "Soft-empty hand control incidents" occur when an officer uses only hands to apprehend a suspect. "Hard-empty hand control incidents" occur when an officer strikes the suspect with an empty hand, and "intermediate weapons incidents" include officers' use of a Taser or other nonlethal weapon.
During the two years studied, 1,693 DPD officers submitted at least one use-of-force report. Thirty-two percent of those officers filed four or more reports. Of the reports filed, 55 percent reported soft-empty hand control, 39 percent reported hard-empty hand control and 7 percent reported use of an intermediate weapon.
If one looks at the numbers in isolation, there are significant relationships between the race of the officer making the arrest, the race of the suspect and the potential use of force. The most common uses of force occurred when white officers arrested black suspects, making up 32 percent of the total incidents. White-white incidents made up 14 percent of the total, as did white-Hispanic incidents.
Seemingly, that would indicate that white officers are more likely to use force against minority suspects. But that isn't the case, according to one of the study's authors, Stephen Bishopp, a professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas' Department of Criminal Justice and a sergeant in the Dallas Police Department. Bishopp says that once he and his colleagues controlled for outside factors, the relationship between race or ethnicity and the use of force dissipated.
"There's much more involved than a person's race, whether it's the officer's race or the suspect's race," Bishopp says. "Some of those things include: Is the suspect committing a crime when the officer confronts him? Is the suspect drunk or high on drugs? Is the suspect being cooperative? Is the officer a two-year officer or a 25-year officer? Is the officer 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds? Or is the officer a 5-foot female who is 100 pounds soaking wet with her equipment on? There's a lot of dynamics that play into the actual use of force beyond, 'That's a black guy and I'm a white guy and I don't like blacks.'"
The researchers called these variables "situational-level covariates." Once the researchers considered these factors, "differences in the odds of hard-empty hand control between white-nonwhite dyads and white-white dyad encounters did not persist," according to the study. The same held true for the use of intermediate weapons.
Looking at only the top-line numbers, Bishopp says, misses the picture in a city like Dallas.
"If you think about Dallas, where are the concentrations of crime and what are the dynamics in those areas, and where do they send police?" he says. "You think about hot spots. [DPD has identified 53 crime hot spots.] We actively work 17, last time that I heard, and where are those hot spots? They're at Hatcher and Scyene [in South Dallas], they're at Five Points, they're at Central and C.F. Hawn [in southeast Dallas]. They're in concentrated areas that are low income and predominantly black and Hispanic."
When you combine enforcement that's focused in minority communities and a department that is about 50 percent white, Bishopp says, you are going to get more uses of force by white officers against minorities. Just because they happen more often, the study says, doesn't mean that a white officer is more likely to use force against a minority suspect in a generic situation.
"No officer out here wants to get into a fight," Bishopp says. "If they get into a fight, they end as quickly as they can so nobody gets hurt. There's not an altruistic reason behind that. Officers simply do not want to take a suspect to Parkland and sit all night. They don't want to have to explain a use of force to their superiors. Officers use the force that they need, and they're done because anything after that gets them in trouble."
John Fullinwider, a longtime Dallas activist and co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, says that even if the study's methodology is sound, its data comes from a compromised source.
"There is no independent fact check on a police database. Some researcher sitting at his desk that wants to do research on the Dallas Police Department, he goes to the [DPD website] and he starts pulling officer demographics and victim demographics. He's pulling all this data, and he won't know what really happened," he said. "The transparency effort of the Dallas Police Department is largely public relations."
Fullinwider says an internal newsletter sent out by former police Chief David Brown in April 2016 is proof that DPD provides information about use of force and officer-involved shootings in the interest of protecting itself rather than transparency.
"Some police agencies are experiencing a tightening of the reins from the Department of Justice and have been issued a consent degree," Brown wrote. "As a result, these agencies are forced by the DOJ to release certain information in a format that is determined by the DOJ. The Dallas Police Department has decided to continue in our effort of transparency with the public by releasing our Response to Resistance data without being forced by the DOJ. By doing it on our own terms, we can release this information in our own format, which allows us to tell our story."
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Data gleaned from DPD's database is biased on its face, Fullinwider says, and the conclusions of the study simply don't line up with the experiences of the people his organization works with. "The conclusion seems to defy the lived experience of people I know personally," he says.
That officers are making more arrests in communities of color, he says, points to inequality in enforcement, rather than a mitigation for the number of white cops who use force on black and Latino suspects. "Some kid smoking pot in their backyard in Preston Hollow, they live in a Western democracy, but if you're at a house party in Pleasant Grove, you live in a police state," Fullinwider says.
Bishopp says the research results appear to dispel these ideas about police relations with minorities. "Officers aren't going out here to use a whole bunch of force on people just because they can," he says. "That's a narrative that's wrong on so many different levels, but until we start to look at it as researchers, that's still the narrative."