A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.
But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.
“It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard. The study examined more than 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California.
The result contradicts the image of police shootings that many Americans hold after the killings (some captured on video) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Walter Scott in South Carolina; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
The study did not say whether the most egregious examples — those at the heart of the nation’s debate on police shootings — are free of racial bias. Instead, it examined a larger pool of shootings, including nonfatal ones.
The counterintuitive results provoked debate after the study was posted on Monday, mostly about the volume of police encounters and the scope of the data. Mr. Fryer emphasizes that the work is not the definitive analysis of police shootings, and that more data would be needed to understand the country as a whole. This work focused only on what happens once the police have stopped civilians, not on the risk of being stopped at all. Other research has shown that blacks are more likely to be stopped by the police.
Mr. Fryer, the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard and the first to win a John Bates Clark medal, a prize given to the most promising American economist under 40, said anger after the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others drove him to study the issue. “You know, protesting is not my thing,” he said. “But data is my thing. So I decided that I was going to collect a bunch of data and try to understand what really is going on when it comes to racial differences in police use of force.”
Continue reading the main story
He and student researchers spent about 3,000 hours assembling detailed data from police reports in Houston; Austin, Tex.; Dallas; Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and four other counties in Florida.
They examined 1,332 shootings between 2000 and 2015, coding police narratives to answer questions such as: How old was the suspect? How many police officers were at the scene? Were they mostly white? Was the officer at the scene for a robbery, violent activity, a traffic stop or something else? Was it nighttime? Did the officer shoot after being attacked or before a possible attack? One goal was to determine if police officers were quicker to fire at black suspects.
In shootings in these 10 cities involving officers, officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white. Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon. Both results undercut the idea of racial bias in police use of lethal force.
But police shootings are only part of the picture. What about situations in which an officer might be expected to fire, but doesn’t?
To answer this, Mr. Fryer focused on one city, Houston. The Police Department there let the researchers look at reports not only for shootings but also for arrests when lethal force might have been justified. Mr. Fryer defined this group to include encounters with suspects the police subsequently charged with serious offenses like attempting to murder an officer, or evading or resisting arrest. He also considered suspects shocked with Tasers.
Mr. Fryer found that in such situations, officers in Houston were about 20 percent less likely to shoot if the suspects were black. This estimate was not precise, and firmer conclusions would require more data. But in various models controlling for different factors and using different definitions of tense situations, Mr. Fryer found that blacks were either less likely to be shot or there was no difference between blacks and whites.
The study, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, relied on reports filled out by police officers and on police departments willing to share those reports. Recent videos of police shootings have led to questions about the reliability of such accounts. But the results were largely the same whether or not Mr. Fryer used information from narratives by officers.
Such results may not be true in every city. The cities Mr. Fryer used to examine officer-involved shootings make up only about 4 percent of the nation’s population, and serve more black citizens than average.
Moreover, the results do not mean that the general public’s perception of racism in policing is misguided. Lethal uses of force are exceedingly rare. There were 1.6 million arrests in Houston in the years Mr. Fryer studied. Officers fired their weapons 507 times. What is far more common are nonlethal uses of force.
And in these uses of force, Mr. Fryer found racial differences, which is in accord with public perception and other studies.
In New York City, blacks stopped by the police were about 17 percent more likely to experience use of force, according to stop-and-frisk records kept between 2003 and 2013. (In the later year, a judge ruled that the tactic as employed then was unconstitutional.)
Mr. Fryer also explored racial differences in force from the viewpoint of civilians, using data from a nationally representative survey conducted by the federal government. Here, he found racial gaps in force that were larger than those he found in the data reported from the officers’ perspective. But these gaps were also consistent across many different types of force.
This is not news to the black community. It’s at the root of the “talk” that many black parents give to their sons and daughters about how to approach interactions with the police.
Mr. Fryer wonders if the divide between lethal force — where he did not find racial disparities — and nonlethal force — where he did — might be related to costs. Officers face costs, legal and psychological, when they unnecessarily fire their guns. But excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished. “No officer has ever told me that putting their hands on inner-city youth is a life-changing event,” he said.
For Mr. Fryer, who has spent much of his career studying ways society can close the racial achievement gap, the failure to punish excessive everyday force is an important contributor to young black disillusionment.
“Who the hell wants to have a police officer put their hand on them or yell and scream at them? It’s an awful experience,” he said. “Every black man I know has had this experience. Every one of them. It is hard to believe that the world is your oyster if the police can rough you up without punishment. And when I talked to minority youth, almost every single one of them mentions lower-level uses of force as the reason why they believe the world is corrupt.”
Headline: Western Journalism