A very recently published Harvard study on racial bias in police use of force finds that, as the mainstream narrative proffers, black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. However, in what the (African-American) author of the study calls “the most surprising result of my career,” when it comes to the most lethal form of force – police shootings – the study finds no racial bias, contradicting the mental image of police shootings that many Americans hold.
As The NY Times reports, the study did not say whether the most egregious examples — the kind of killings at the heart of the nation’s debate on police shootings — are free of racial bias. Instead, it examined a much larger pool of shootings, including nonfatal ones. It focused on what happens when police encounters occur, not how often they happen. (There’s a disproportionate number of tense interactions among blacks and the police when shootings could occur, and thus a disproportionate outcome for blacks.) Racial differences in how often police-civilian interactions occur have been shown reflect greater structural problems in society.
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 Roland G. Fryer Jr., the African-American author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard – which examined more than 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California, was “surprised” to find that when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.
Mr. Fryer said his anger after the deaths of Michael Brown and 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.”
In officer-involved shootings in these 10 cities, 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 of these results undercut the idea that the police wield lethal force with racial bias.
However, 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. “I’ve had it multiple, multiple times. 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.”