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Police killings in England and Wales
Is there evidence of bias?
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Yesterday’s newsletter showed that in the US, almost all the group-level variation in fatal police shootings can be explained by differences in behaviour. By coincidence, a report on police killings in England and Wales was published this morning by the charity Inquest. It was covered in the Guardian.
The report, titled ‘I Can’t Breathe: Race, Death and British Policing’, claims that black people are disproportionately killed by police, and that this may be due to “racism institutionalised in police culture”.
The authors’ key figure is on p. 47. They compare the ethnic distribution of deaths “in or following custody and those following police contact that involved restraint” to the ethnic distribution in the overall population, using data from 2013–2021.
They note that “Black people are 6.4 times more likely to die than the proportion of the population they represent”, where as “for White people the comparable figure is just 0.84.” Hence they conclude that “Black people are seven times more likely to die than White people when restraint was involved”.
Is this conclusion justified?
We know that population does not provide a valid benchmark for assessing bias in police killings. Why not? Well, consider gender. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (the sources of Inquest’s data) reports that in 2020–2021, 20 people were killed by police in “fatal shootings” or “in or following police custody”. Of these, 18 were men – that’s 90%.
Since men are only 50% of the population, is this evidence of “sexism institutionalised in police culture”? Obviously not. Everyone knows that men commit the vast majority of violent crime, and hence are more likely to get into situations where police officers end up killing them. The question then becomes: are different ethnic groups equally likely to get into such situations?
We can use homicides as a proxy for the kind of behaviour that leads people to get killed by police. The Ministry of Justice provides data on homicide victims by “ethnicity of principal suspect”. These data were obtained for the years 2011–2014, 2014–2016, 2016–2018 and 2018–2020. The date range here overlaps closely with the one used by Inquest.
A minor caveat is that the Ministry of Justice uses the categories “white”, “black”, “Asian” and “other”, whereas Inquest used “white”, “black”, “Asian” and “mixed”. For the sake of simplicity, I will treat “other” as the same as “mixed”. (Doing so does not affect the results.)
The chart below compares the ethnic distribution of police killings to the ethnic distribution of homicides. The two are almost identical. Blacks and whites are both killed marginally more often than you’d expect based on the number of homicides they commit, while Asians are killed slightly less often. Overall, though, the distributions are highly similar.
Rather than black people being seven times more likely to die than white people, they are just as likely to die – the ratio of ratios is exactly one. This suggests that ethnic disparities in police killings are due to differences in the kind of behaviour that leads people to get killed by police, not “racism institutionalised in police culture”.
You can insist that population is the right benchmark for assessing bias, but then you have to explain why the police kill so many more men than women without invoking “sexism institutionalised in police culture”. It’s not going to work.
As in the US, so in England and Wales: racial bias isn’t a plausible explanation for ethnic disparities in police killings.
Image: Bedfordshire Police Mitsubishi Shogun ANPR Interceptor, 2009
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