more data on police interactions by race

We reported on June 17:

Sixty-eight percent of African Americans say they know someone who has been unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused by the police, and 43 percent say they personally have had this experience—with 22 percent saying the mistreatment occurred within the past year alone, according to survey results from Tufts University’s Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement.

According to the KFF Health Tracking Poll for June, 2020, about 30% of Black adults say they have “experienced unfair treatment in interactions with police” within the past year. Forty-one percent of Black adults “say they have been stopped or detained by police because of their racial or ethnic background,” and “about one in five Black adults (21%)–including 30% of Black men–say they have been a victim of police violence due to their racial background.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent (2015) Police-Public Contact Survey, 19.8% of African Americans age 16+ had some contact with the police in the past year. This number is the total of several specific types of contact that are asked in the survey, such as riding in a car that was stopped by the police or reporting a crime, among others. The total rate of contact was down by six percentage points compared to 2011.

In the BJS survey, whites were three percentage points more likely than African Americans to report any contact with the police but were also more likely to initiate the contact. Of those who reported that they had been stopped on the street by police, two thirds of whites (67.8%) but only half of Blacks (50.1%) said that the reason for the stop was legitimate.

Of Blacks who said that they had contacted the police, 90.7% said the police behaved properly and 83.6% said they were satisfied by the outcome–very similar rates to whites. The survey implies that 2.7 million African Americans initiated contact with the police in 2015, of whom about 2.3 million were satisfied. This is a fact with some political significance in discussions of defunding the police. At the same time, 3.3% of Blacks and 1.3% of whites reported that the police had used force against them in 2015.

A significant limitation involves the samples of all these surveys. Our survey excludes people in prisons or jails. So does the BJS survey, which also excludes “homeless persons.” I am not sure about the sample of the KFF survey, but it is conducted predominantly by random-digit dialing, which would miss institutionalized people and homeless people. Rates of discriminatory contact would likely be higher if institutionalized and homeless people were included.

The statistics from these three surveys are not strictly comparable. The populations, samples, dates, and questions vary. Still, careful comparisons are interesting. BJS finds that 19.8% of Blacks reported any contact with the police in 2015, and many of those contacts were perceived as legitimate. We find that 22% of Blacks experienced discriminatory treatment by the police in 2020. There could certainly be measurement errors or biases in either survey. Or the rate of discriminatory treatment could have risen in 2020 as a result of mass protests. I would also suspect that some forms of discriminatory treatment do not occur during events that people identify as “contacts.” If a police officer yells at you while driving by but doesn’t stop, that could be an act of discrimination but not a contact.

See also: Two-thirds of African Americans know someone mistreated by police, and 22% report mistreatment in past year; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; and science, law, and microagressions.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.