Our Police, Ourselves

Last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a working paper by economist Roland Fryer on how police use violent force on civilians based on the race of those civilians.

Because police departments are not obliged to provide detailed encounter summaries in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and there is no standardized reporting of police use of force, Fryer’s team used a non-random sample of urban police departments with whom they were able to make contacts. Most of these departments were voluntarily a part of President Obama’s Police Data Initiative, a reform initiative focused on police accountability. In the methods section, Fryer is explicit about the bias that this selection introduces to the study and the limits it places upon its generalizability.

From these data sets, Fryer makes some interesting observations:

New York City Stop-And-Frisk Data

  • In New York, Black people are 17% more likely to experience police violence during a police stop compared to Whites. Hispanic people are 12% more likely.
  • This disparity was present across all use of force categories [(1) hands, (2) force to a wall, (3) handcuffs, (4) draw weapon, (5) push to the ground, (6) point a weapon, (7) pepper spray or (8) strike with a baton].

Police-Public Contact Survey (PCPS)

  • The PCPS is a nationally representative survey of civilians on their encounters with the police.
  • In the PCPS data set, Black people were 2.7 times more likely to report use of force by police and Hispanic people were 1.7 times more likely after accounting for demographic and encounter characteristics.
  • “Strikingly, both the black and Hispanic coefficients are statistically similar across these income levels suggesting that higher income minorities do not price themselves out of police use of force”

Houston Officer-Involved Shooting (OIS) Data

  • This was the result that has made the headlines. In Houston, police were no more likely to shoot a Black person during a police encounter than a White person.
  • Unlike in much of the press surrounding this research, in the paper itself Fryer is explicit about the limited scope of its conclusion: “To be clear, the empirical thought experiment here is that a police officer arrives at a scene and decides whether or not to use lethal force. Our estimates suggest that this decision is not correlated with the race of the suspect. This does not, however, rule out the possibility that there are important racial differences in whether or not these police-civilian interactions occur at all.”

This study joins a growing body of literature focused on racial bias in policing. These studies are reliant on the lay press for data which introduces its own set of biases, but unfortunately such weak data is what we’re stuck with until we get mandatory reporting of all police shootings.

These results do no necessarily conflict with Fryer’s result when you consider that Black people are more likely to be stopped by police than white people.

In other words, even if there is an equal chance of a police officer pulling the trigger during an encounter with a Black or White person, because Black people are stopped by police more often, they are shot by police more often.

I think this is an important conclusion to think about because it moves the narrative away from focusing solely on police shootings to a bigger picture view of how policing reflects broader social perceptions of Black criminality and suspiciousness.

Better de-escalation training can reduce the overall number of people killed by the police and by extension the number of Black people killed by police. Implicit bias training can reduce the excess targeting of Black communities which leads to excess Black deaths at the hands of police. These are great harm-reduction steps that we can take right now that will literally save lives.

However, affirming that Black Lives Matter means taking a step beyond reactive politics toward an understanding that police attitudes and behaviors are not anomalous, but a reflection of the society in which they operate. Police reforms are important, but so is rooting out and addressing the racial biases present in my own life and in my immediate community.

If this is something that you’re interested in as well, check out this curriculum on race and racism or this guide to developing a positive White identity through anti-racist action. And of course, feel free to chat with me about it. I’m @hkalodimos on Twitter.

 

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Author: Harrison Kalodimos

I'm a family medicine resident at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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