Surprising new study does not support racial bias in police shootings

The study, which comes from a Harvard University researcher, does show that police use more force on blacks than whites, but does not confirm the existence of a racial bias when it comes to shooting. 

David Goldman/AP
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, right, and Police Chief George Turner look on after meeting with protesters outside the home of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal during a march against the recent police shootings of African-Americans Monday, July 11, 2016, in Atlanta.

Police treat black suspects more roughly across the board, excluding the one type of violence that has sparked the most national outcry: lethal force. Those are the findings of a new study released Monday that found no evidence of racial bias in situations where police fire their guns.

“It is the most surprising result of my career,” Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist who authored the study, told The New York Times. The results of a year-long, statistical analysis of thousands of civilian-police interactions in Texas, New York, Florida, and California seeks to inject much-needed data into the debate about police and race, a discussion that gained urgency following the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas last week.

Regarding the use of non-lethal force, the study confirms President Obama’s description of the fraught relationship between police officers and minorities: "Because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts.”

Blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely than whites to experience some form of force in their interactions with police, the study finds, based on data from New York City and a nationwide Police-Public Contact Survey. They’re more likely to be touched, pushed into a wall, pepper-sprayed, and have a weapon drawn on them, a disparity that cannot be accounted for by controlling for context and civilian behavior.

But Fryer found in raw data from Houston, Texas, comparing officer-involved shootings and interactions with police where using lethal force may have been justified that blacks and Hispanics are actually less likely to be shot by police relative to whites. Controlling for factors such as the details of the encounter and the weapon the civilian was carrying, Fryer still found no statistically significant difference of suspects being shot based on their race.

The Houston data supported Fryer’s findings in 10 municipalities across three states that officers were as likely to shoot white suspects who had not attacked them as they were black suspects in the same circumstances.

“Given the stream of video ‘evidence,’ which many take to be indicative of structural racism in police departments across America, the ensuing and understandable outrage in black communities across America, and the results from our previous analysis of non-lethal uses of force, the results ... are startling,” Fryer writes in the paper.

Writing for Vox, German Lopez put forward a reason the new study paints a different picture than Washington Post data that shows blacks are disproportionately shot by police. “Specifically, the data the study uses only looks at racial biases after a police officer engages with a suspect. That excludes a key driver of racial biases in policing: that police are more likely to stop black people in the first place, producing far more situations in which someone is likely to be shot.”

Since federal data reveals black Americans are disproportionately likely to be pulled over in traffic stops, if police are equally likely to shoot people of either race in those stops, it makes sense that more black Americans are killed, Lopez explains.

Fryer is frank about the limitations to his study, writing that it “takes first steps into the treacherous terrain of understanding the nature and extent of racial differences in police use of force.” All but one dataset was voluntarily provided by police departments that were willing to share their data, and the one dataset with a nationally representative sample of civilians doesn’t contain data on officer-involved shootings. Rajiv Sethi, an economist at Barnard College, cautions against the belief the Houston Police Department data applies nationally.

But the study does support the possibility that racial disparities in police shootings don't occur at the moment when the police officer decides whether or not to fire his gun, but at some point earlier, possibly with the increased police presence in minority communities or a cop’s decision to make a stop.

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