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College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Research Examines Racial Bias in Police Actions

James E Wright II

Upon receiving a McKnight Junior Faculty Development Fellowship in July, Assistant Professor of Public Administration James E. Wright II noted that the fellowship will make it possible for him to focus on research that not only has impacts within academia but changes the nature of policing in the United States.

“My projects will explore if we can identify what decision points lead to actions by police officers in specific scenarios,” he said.

Discrepancies in bureaucrat behavior, residential segregation and police stops that turn deadly have spurred critical analysis surrounding who gets stopped by the police and what happens once they get stopped. Wright’s earlier research has already addressed aspects of this issue, and two newly published studies take this work further.

One study, “Place plus Race Effects in Bureaucratic Discretionary Power: An Analysis of Residential Segregation and Police Stop Decisions,” considers the effect of officers’ decision when performing vehicle stops and conducting vehicle or person searches. It was published in the journal Public Performance & Management Review, July 29.

Wright and his co-authors – public administration Ph.D. candidate Dongfang Gaozhao and Meagan A. Snow, the Geospatial Data Visualization Librarian for the Geography & Map Division of the Library of Congress – found that majority African American areas of high segregation have 40% more vehicle or person searches than other parts of the city.

Furthermore, the study indicates that in predominately African American areas with growing pockets of East African immigrant areas will be subject to 50% more vehicle and person searches.

The research is one of the few empirical studies within public administration to examine police stop decisions in segregated areas and one of the few empirical studies that explores police actions toward immigrants. The results, Wright said, show that there is stark bias, discrimination and investigatory policing geared towards native-born and foreign-born Black people.

“It shows that not only does race matter; it also extends what we know about dark-skinned immigrants and how they are over-policed,” he said.

Wright and his colleagues analyzed data from segregated neighborhoods in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while a police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes. The May 2020 incident ignited a string of protests across the country and continues to prompt calls for reforming and restructuring police departments throughout the nation.

Wright is the co-author on another study published today in the journal Public Administration Review. “Is Representation Enough? Racial Disparities in Levels of Force and Arrests by Police” examines the impact of representative bureaucracy on the level of force that police officers use and whether they make an arrest in use-of-force encounters.

According to the study abstract, using individual‐level data from New Orleans, the authors find that race impacts policing outcomes even in the presence of situational shortcuts that cue decision‐making.

The findings show that the benefits of representation are conditional on the outcome. Black officers are less likely to use higher levels of force on Black civilians. Yet both Black and White officers are less likely to arrest White civilians in use-of-force encounters. The researchers say this suggests that interactions in which bureaucrats have less discretion (e.g., arrests) may offer limited opportunities for active representation.

The newly published papers are part of Wright’s larger research agenda to highlight police actions geared at civilians. In these and other studies, he seeks to show statistically if discrimination exists, how it manifests and how public servants perpetuate discrimination within public organizations.

“It is my hope that this research will be used to identify discriminatory practices by public servants,” Wright said. “By identifying these practices, we can begin to work on reducing and hopefully eventual eliminating discrimination based upon the color of someone’s skin.”

Earlier this year, Wright co-authored a paper in the journal The American Review of Public Administration. “Police Use of Force Interactions: Is Race Relevant or Gender Germane?” utilized individual-level data from two police departments (Indianapolis and Dallas) to explore differences in the amount of force used by officers in ethnic, racial and gender matches in police-civilian encounters.

One of the projects supported by the McKnight Fellowship will explore what is more pertinent to policing outcomes for civilians: racial representation within the police force or the use of Body-Worn Cameras to reduce police use-of-force scenarios.

Wright also plans to apply for a National Science Foundation grant to explore how virtual reality can be employed in efforts to reduce policing bias in police stops, e.g., using scenario-building to understand police discretion and decision making.

Wright’s work on racial bias and systemic discrimination extends beyond matters of policing. In May 2020, he and a colleague published “Social Equity and COVID ‐19: The Case of African Americans” in the journal Public Administration Review, a study of the disproportionate effect of the virus on Black communities.