New Data Shows Police Use More Force Against Black Citizens Even Though Whites Resist More

Demonstrators celebrate the guilty verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 5 in Chicago.
Demonstrators celebrate the guilty verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 5 in Chicago. Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Earlier this month, a New Jersey teenager was beaten by police in Dover, prompting street protests. Footage of the beating showed police officers punching 19-year-old Cyprian Luke, who reportedly identifies as Afro-Latino, in the head as one of the officers repeatedly shouted “Stop resisting!” The mantra “stop resisting” is a familiar one to anybody who has assessed police violence. The premise that if black people simply complied during police interactions there would be no police brutality is a common trope. According to newly revealed data on use of force cases in Chicago, it’s a story that has no basis in reality.

As dozens of studies have shown, police tend to use more force against black citizens. Often in these cases a claim that the suspect “resisted arrest” is used to justify the violence. In 2014, a New York man named Eric Garner was famously charged with resisting arrest even as officers used a chokehold that prevented him from breathing and ultimately killed him.

Indeed, some police advocates have gone so far as to claim that black people are more hostile or noncompliant with law enforcement, and that—as such—greater force is justified against black communities. “[O]fficers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in [minority] communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force,” the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald wrote in the Wall Street Journal in a 2016 piece titled “The Myth of Black Lives Matter.”

A new cache of data released by the Chicago Police Department, however, shows that the claim that black people are more likely to face police violence because of noncompliance is itself a dreadful myth. According to the new numbers, Chicago police officers used more force against black citizens, on average, than any other race—even though black citizens tended to exercise less resistance than whites. Under the same circumstances and faced with the same level of danger, cops tended to resolve the situation without firing their weapons much more often for white citizens than black citizens. This analysis was based on Chicago PD’s own descriptions of the incidents in question.

In 2016, the Invisible Institute—a police accountability nonprofit based in Chicago—filed an open records request on officer use of force for the CPD. The institute received the reports on each of the more than 60,000 times police officers pushed, stunned, shot at, or otherwise used force on civilians from 2004 through part of 2016, including the level of force used and the amount of resistance reportedly encountered.

Officers are required to use force appropriate for the level of danger they face, but they were much more likely to show such restraint for white subjects than black subjects given the same sets of circumstances. Using the data acquired by the Invisible Institute, I quantified the level of resistance along a simple scale, ranging from passive resistance to attacking an officer with a deadly weapon. I also measured level of force along a range from physical restraint to shooting at the subject. I converted these levels to a simple scale. Passive resistance was measured as a 1, more active resistance like fleeing was a 2, physical assault was a 3, and deadly force like firing a weapon was a 4. (The original officer-reported numbers were along a complex 0.0 to 6.0 scale, which I converted to 1-4 for simplicity sake without taking into account race when I made the conversion.)* For officer use of force, verbal commands were measured as a 1, chasing or physical restraint was a 2, physical force like the use of a baton or stun gun was a 3, and firing a weapon was a 4. (The original officer-reported scale was also 1-4.)

Ultimately, comparing the two scales, officers tended to use more force against black subjects even though they presented less resistance than white subjects. For instance, black subjects offered Level 1 or 2 resistance in 47.5 percent of cases, as compared to 44 percent of white subjects who offered the same lower levels of resistance. Meanwhile, black subjects faced Levels 3 or 4 use of force 91.6 percent of the time, as compared to white subjects who faced those levels of force in 89.2 percent of cases. “It’s no surprise that African Americans are having more force used against them,” said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and frequent consultant to police departments. “The fact that officers are reporting … less resistance than white subjects—that’s surprising,”

A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department declined to comment, stating that the department had not independently authenticated my analysis.

The disparities were especially pronounced in the use of lethal force. According to the analysis of the police reports, black subjects were deemed to present a deadly threat to police officers slightly more often than whites. But when faced with a white subject deemed to present a deadly threat, officers used lethal force in just 28 percent of cases. Meanwhile, officers fired upon black subjects in 43 percent of similar situations.

Subconscious bias might help to explain this enormous disparity. “There’s a whole host of research that shows that black men are perceived to be more threatening because they are black men,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, a group that advocates for police reform and reductions in police violence. Structural differences in poverty and crime rates in black communities are also often used as a justification for disproportionately more aggressive policing. Those differences are real, even if that rationale itself does not hold water. “[It’s] several hundred years of racist housing policy, and economic policy, and education policy, and criminal justice policy that set the stage for a racially disparate type of interaction today,” said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, former police officer, and co-author of a forthcoming book on police uses of force.

Because the analysis is based off of officers’ self-reporting—which may not be fully accurate—the racial bias could be even worse than the data indicates.

How can police departments put a stop to the disproportionate use of force against black communities? Many law enforcement agencies employ specialized training in an effort to reduce unconscious biases. In these programs, police officers run through fictional scenarios set up to challenge preexisting biases.

Until recently, Chicago did not require officers do this kind of training after they graduated the police academy. But after an investigation by the Department of Justice following the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, the city agreed to a consent decree that included such anti-bias training annually. The decree also requires revisions to the city’s use of force policy and mandates that the department analyze use of force statistics to identify trends related to racial biases. The department’s own data on these interactions, and my analysis based off of those numbers, would be a valuable place for them to look next.

Chicago’s reforms have come only after years of officials laying the blame for disproportionate use of force on “resistance,” an argument that is refuted by the new analysis. Former Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy, for instance, would blame police shootings on “noncompliance” on the part of arrestees. This was while his own department was shooting a far lower percentage of the time when the noncomplying subject was white. Former police union chief Dean Angelo, meanwhile, denied charges of racial bias in the department by saying that police use force more often against black or Hispanic subjects because of higher crime rates in black and Hispanic communities. Again, the Invisible Institute data clearly demonstrates that “noncompliance” on the part of black subjects does not explain the higher levels of relative force.

“There are narratives about police encountering more danger when they’re encountering black people,” said Sinyangwe. “There are narratives about police using force strictly because of the resistance they encounter.”

As Sinyangwe, concluded, though, those police narratives “can’t withstand the actual data.”

Update, May 30, 2019: This article has been updated for clarity.