Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings

New York Times, July 12, 2016

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.

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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. {snip}

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.

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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.

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{snip} 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. {snip}

That gap, adjusted for suspect behavior and other factors, was surprisingly consistent across various levels of force. Black suspects were 18 percent more likely to be pushed up against a wall, 16 percent more likely to be handcuffed without being arrested and 18 percent more likely to be pushed to the ground.

Even when the police said that civilians were compliant, blacks experienced more force.

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.

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