A new study from Harvard’s Roland G. Fryer Jr. (which Robert VerBruggen examines on the homepage today) shows that while police are more likely to use various types of force – pepper spray, handcuffs, pushing – on black people than white, they are far less likely to shoot them.
More from the New York Times report on the study:
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.
In officer-involved shootings in these 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.
But this line of analysis included only encounters in which a shooting took place. A more fundamental question still remained: In the tense moments when a shooting may occur, are police officers more likely to fire if the suspect is black?
To answer this question, Mr. Fryer focused on one city, Houston. 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. Mr. Fryer defined this group to include suspects the police charged with serious offenses like attempting to murder an officer, or evading or resisting arrest. He also considered suspects shocked with Tasers.
And in the arena of “shoot” or “don’t shoot,” 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.
In light of high-profile killings by police in Minnesota and Louisiana and the mass shooting of Dallas police officers earlier this week, these results are particularly intriguing. As activists on all sides continue to debate the relationship between “Black lives” and “Blue lives,” it may be enlightening to see that the issue of racial bias is not entirely cut-and-dry one way or the other.