Researchers Ask for Retraction of Fatal Police Shootings Paper Over ‘Misuse’

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber is a senior reporter for The Epoch Times based in Maryland. He covers U.S. and world news.
July 9, 2020Updated: July 10, 2020

Researchers who published a widely cited paper on fatal police shootings in 2019 said they’ve requested a retraction because the paper is being used improperly.

Michigan State University researchers found “no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers,” they wrote in the research article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Two of the researchers, David Johnson and Joseph Cesario, submitted a request this week to PNAS for a retraction of the paper.

The psychology professors said they were careless when describing inferences that could be made from the data in the paper, which looked at fatal police-involved shootings in 2015.

“This led to the misuse of our article to support the position that the probability of being shot by police did not differ between Black and White Americans,” they wrote. “To be clear, our work does not speak to this issue and should not be used to support such statements.”

The authors already issued one correction and said they don’t want to publish anymore, leading to the retraction request.

The decision “had nothing to do with political considerations, ‘mob’ pressure, threats to the authors, or distaste for the political views of people citing the work approvingly,” Cesario and Johnson said in the retraction request.

Epoch Times Photo
Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, author of “The Diversity Delusion,” in Irvine, Calif., on July 28, 2019. (Ke Yuan/The Epoch Times)

Mac Donald

An earlier version (pdf) of the retraction request named only one person who the researchers said was misusing the paper: Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Mac Donald said in an op-ed that the researchers were “disowning their research simply because I cited it.”

“The authors don’t say how I misused their work. Instead, they attribute to me a position I have never taken: that the ‘probability of being shot by police did not differ between Black and White Americans.’ To the contrary, I have, like them, stressed that racial disparities in policing reflect differences in violent crime rates,” she wrote.

“The only thing wrong with their article, and my citation of it, is that its conclusion is unacceptable in our current political climate.”

In an email to The Epoch Times, Cesario said lots of people were citing the work incorrectly, including Mac Donald.

“We were sloppy and careless with the inferences we made and that is why people were misusing the work. Hence the responsibility was ours to retract and rewrite the paper in a more careful manner,” he said.

“The idea that I would retract a paper for political pressure or because a conservative approved of the work is demonstrably false,” he added, pointing out that he’s been under pressure to retract another paper from last year that also found no anti-black disparity in fatal police shootings but has not done so.

Johnson told The Epoch Times via email that the new statement “clarifies why my coauthors and I decided to retract the paper.”

Epoch Times Photo
This screen grab taken from dashboard camera video provided by the Atlanta Police Department shows Rayshard Brooks, left, and Officer Garrett Rolfe pointing Tasers at one another, while Officer Devin Brosnan is seen getting up after a struggle among the three men in the parking lot of a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta, Ga., early June 13, 2020. (Atlanta Police Department via AP)

A spokesperson for PNAS said that it received the request for retraction.

“We are working to publish the statement as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. As of July 9, the statement has not yet been published on the journal’s website.

The authors have not been told when their retraction statement will be published by PNAS.

The peer-reviewed paper was published on June 24, 2019. It was received for review on March 5, 2019.

An editorial published by PNAS in June noted Mac Donald’s citing of the paper in an op-ed and in testimony to Congress.

A “glaring mistake” was missed during peer review, the editorial, which appears to be from two people who peer reviewed the article, states. A statement about the article from the officers “erroneously asserted that ‘white officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than nonwhite officers,'” Douglas Massey of Princeton University and Mary Waters of Harvard University wrote.

“Unfortunately, their article did not contain the data to address this question, and their analyses did not allow them to conclude this.”

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