The headline in the New York Times read “Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings” and the researcher, Harvard Economic Professor Roland Fryer, calls it “the most surprising result of my career.”
The take home message, “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.”
But did the Times overplay the results of the study? The study was sweeping and in a lot of ways innovative, in that it examined more than a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments – in Texas, Florida and California over a period from 2000 to 2015. At the same time, the findings may be more limited than the headlines apply.
The team spent over 3000 hours assembling detailed data from police reports in Houston; Austin, Tex.; Dallas; Los Angeles; Orlando; Jacksonville, Fla.; and locations in four other counties in Florida. They examined 1,332 shootings between 2000 and 2015.
But beneath all of that breadth of data, the key question that they examined was: “In the tense moments when a shooting may occur, are police officers more likely to fire if the suspect is black?” In order to answer that question, Professor Fryer focused on one city – Houston.
There are good reasons for that. “The Police Department there allowed the researchers to look at reports not only for shootings but also for arrests when lethal force might have been justified.” But that strongly limits the data and its applicability to the national discourse.
In Houston, “Mr. Fryer found that, in tense situations, officers in Houston were about 20 percent less likely to shoot a suspect if the suspect was black. This estimate was not very precise, and firmer conclusions would require more data. But, in a variety of models that controlled for different factors and used 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.”
So, drilling down beneath the headline, we find that the dramatic headline was based on a limited study of Houston with an imprecise estimate that would require more data and firmer analysis.
Again, this is a great study, but the finding is preliminary and limited to Houston.
Also of interest, but again limited to Houston, Professor Fryer found that the rise of mobile video did not change the results.
The Times warns, “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 population of the United States, and serve more black citizens than average.”
But further beneath that is perhaps a more important finding: “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.”
It is in the area of nonlethal uses of force that Professor Fryer found ample racial difference in accord with public perception. Here he moved the study to New York City, probably a city that would have been more appropriate for examining the use of deadly force, as it has been at the epicenter of a number of high profile and controversial police uses of deadly force.
Here the evidence is overwhelming and unequivocal.
This is the correct metric because it is not dependent on the number of people stopped, it simply examines the likelihood of the use of force given a stop.
That was made more robust because they were able to control for suspected behavior and other factors. “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.”
Those are not huge numbers, but they are consistent numbers. And they are police reported numbers.
The Times continues, “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. They were as strong for civilians making more than $50,000 a year as they were for those making less.”
When it was civilian reported, the use of force against blacks was 170 percent more likely to be grabbed, 217 percent more likely to be handcuffed, 305 percent more likely to have a gun pointed. On the other hand, the number fell to 87 percent more likely to be kicked, subject to a stun gun or pepper sprayed.
Professor Fryer posits “if the difference between lethal force — where he did not find racial disparities — and nonlethal force — where he did — might be related to costs. Officers face great costs, legal and psychological, when they unnecessarily fire their weapons. 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, contrasting the consequences of shootings and lesser uses of force.”
Those are interesting thoughts, but the main problem both studies suffer from is single location. In New York, there were specific policies that might make it more likely for blacks to suffer from a use of force than in other locales. And yet we are generalizing a lot from a very limited study.
In short, while I think Professor Fryer validates the perception of bias in the NYPD, I’m not sure why anyone would want to extend those finding beyond New York. I suspect the findings in Houston may be very different.
Part of what this study does not get at is the discrepancy between officer-involved shootings of whites, who are more likely to be armed, and officer-involved shootings of blacks, who are more likely to be unarmed.
It is a good start for systematic research, but does not warrant the headline the NY Times gave it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting