New Study Finds No Racial Bias in Police Shootings of Suspects

Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard. (Erik Jacobs for The New York Times)
Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard. (Erik Jacobs for The New York Times)

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 a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California.

The result contradicts the mental image of police shootings that many Americans hold in the wake of the killings (some captured on video) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Laquan McDonald in Chicago; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Walter Scott in South Carolina; Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; and Philando Castile in Minnesota.

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. Racial differences in how often police-civilian interactions occur reflect greater structural problems in society.

Official statistics on police shootings are poor. James Comey, the F.B.I. director, has called the lack of data “embarrassing and ridiculous.” Even when data exists, the conditions under which officers decide to fire their weapons are deeply nuanced and complex.

Mr. Fryer is the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard and the first one to receive a John Bates Clark medal, a prize given to the most promising American economist under 40. He is not afraid of controversial questions. In previous work, he has paid students to read books; considered the possibility of genetic differences in intelligence; and shown that high-achieving black and Hispanic students have fewer friends.

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.”

He and a group of 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.

They examined 1,332 shootings between 2000 and 2015, systematically coding police narratives to answer questions such as: How old was the suspect? How many police officers were at the scene? Were they mostly white? Was the officer at the scene for a robbery, violent activity, a traffic stop or something else? Was it nighttime? Did the officer shoot after being attacked or before a possible attack? One goal was to figure out whether police officers were quicker to fire at black suspects.

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