The Racial Dynamics of Fatal Police Shootings: A Computational Approach

Awarded Scholars:
Patrick Rafail, Tulane University
Project Date:
Sep 2019
Award Amount:
$86,692
Project Programs:
Computational Social Science

Fatal police shootings (FPS), particularly of unarmed racial minorities, have received sustained political and media attention. Yet major questions of where and when they occur, and why they are so heavily racialized, remain unanswered. There are two significant limitations to scholarship on FPS. First, systematic, high-quality data are lacking. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has only recently instituted a National Use-of-Force data collection effort with data collection set to begin as of January 1, 2019. However, reporting by law enforcement organizations is voluntary, and there are systematic biases in government databases that do document FPS. Second, researchers have tended to treat police shootings as discrete events and failed to consider the social structural, contextual, organizational and institutional characteristics that might be associated with them.

Sociologist Patrick Rafail proposes to address these limitations by drawing on techniques from computational social science. He aims to assemble a comprehensive database of fatal police shootings between 2014 and 2019 and analyze each event in its social, community and police organizational contexts. Four questions motivate the project. First, how can researchers improve data quality for fatal police shootings? Second, what are the patterns in FPS events – are there trends in victim characteristics, officer characteristics, and the larger circumstances surrounding each shooting? Third, what are the socio-spatial characteristics and police organizational features that are associated with fatal police shooting episodes? Finally, what outcomes are observed in the aftermath, e.g., do protests occur? How are FPS framed in the media? How do police departments respond?

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