While "everyone agrees that there are enormous racial gaps in U.S. rates of stops, arrests, searches, and use of force," Sonja Starr (Michigan) observes that explanations for why this is so both vary and conflict. According to Starr, it is not simply data shortcomings that complicate efforts to study the intersection of policing and race, but also confusion about "what questions we should be asking." In Explaining Race Gaps in Policing: Normative and Empirical Challenges, Starr engages these issues. An excerpted abstract follows.
"The Article gives particular attention to how researchers should address two important research questions. The first is whether criminal conduct differences explain policing disparities. Empirical researchers as well as casual commentators typically purport to address this question either by comparing racial groups’ shares of police interactions to their shares of crime, or by comparing two groups’ ratio of police interactions to their ratio of crimes. Using examples and mathematical proofs, I show that neither of these comparison types answers the key question whether people with like criminal conduct are being treated the same way. These comparisons generally overcorrect for racial differences in criminal conduct, misleadingly masking the size (or even reversing the apparent direction) of disparities in policing of people with the same conduct. Second, I examine how researchers should investigate the effects of racial discrimination — a morally important and legally central question, but one that poses serious causal inference challenges. I review several methods in the current literature, which offer useful insights but have substantial limitations, and critique the recently dominant “hit-rate” approach, which relies on faulty normative and empirical premises. Instead, I propose supplementing existing tools with a new approach: the use of 'testers.'"