FiveThirtyEight Features John Rappaport’s Study on Police Facebook Pages

There's A Racial Bias on Police Facebook Pages

There was nothing overtly biased about the way the Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department described a mugging on its Facebook page in February 2019. The first post simply described a Black suspect who was alleged to have threatened a victim with a gun and demanded cash in this small community in northeastern Pennsylvania. Two later Facebook posts about the case congratulated the police on catching the suspect. 

But two years before, when a white man had robbed a gas station at gunpoint and fled the scene, the police department’s social media response was completely different. There was no mention of the case on social media at all, according to John Rappaport, a professor of law at the University of Chicago who is part of a team studying racial bias in law enforcement social media accounts. Not before the suspect was arrested, to warn the public and seek their help in an arrest. And not after, to reassure the community that the suspect had been caught. “The crimes are quite similar,” Rappaport said. “[It undermines] any notion that crime severity is straightforwardly driving the department’s posting decisions.”

This is just one example of a larger pattern of bias that Rappaport’s team found when they analyzed nearly 14,000 Facebook pages maintained by law enforcement agencies across the United States. They found that police Facebook pages consistently overreport crimes by Black suspects relative to local arrests rates: Between 2010 and 2019, Black suspects were described in 32 percent of posts but represented just 20 percent of arrestees. It mirrors statistics that show white Americans overestimate the percentage of crimes committed by Black Americans by as much 20 to 30 percent compared to the actual figures (numbers that, themselves, already reflect a bias in who gets arrested versus who actually commits crimes). 

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