A recent edition of The Economist featured an article on a series of studies conducted by Roland Fryer, a tenured African American economics professor at Harvard. Fryer was concerned that his own encounters with police as a teenager might color his views on the use of force by police officers in dealing with blacks and other minorities. His first study reviewed and analyzed five million cases from New York City from 2003 to 2013. The raw data indicated that blacks and Hispanics were 50% more likely to encounter non-lethal uses of force than were whites. Even after analyzing the data to account for factors such as attempted assault on an officer or flight to avoid arrest, blacks were still some 17% more likely to incur the use of force than were whites, and even in the case of blacks reported to be perfectly compliant by police, such blacks were 21% more likely to have some force used against them than were whites.
Another study, by Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, reached a similar conclusion about the disproportionate stopping and harassing of minorities.
But the most shocking figures to Fryer were those uncovered when the two separate research teams he supervised looked into the over 1300 shootings by police in ten police departments from 2000 to 2015, including the cities of Houston and Los Angeles. The raw data found that blacks weren’t any more likely to be shot by an officer than non-blacks. Fryer then dug deeper, looking through 6000 incident reports from Houston, looking at all incidents involving shooting, Tasers, or other situations where lethal force could have been justifiably used, but was not. The result remained the same. Black suspects were actually less likely to have been shot than non-black subjects, and similar results appeared in the other police districts studied.
In effect, racial bias appeared in all kinds of situations – except in the case of shootings or where police used or might have used guns or Tasers. Why was there this difference?
Fryer suggests that the reason is that incidents involving guns and Tasers all require higher-level review and that all police officers are well aware of that, and therefore take more care in dealing with such incidents, whereas less violent situations seldom see that kind of review. If that is the case, then the growing use of body cameras by police may also lead to a more equal treatment of blacks and other minorities.
But the problem of violence between police and those detained or arrested isn’t exactly one-sided. Miller pointed out that on average, every day, three people die and 150 people are treated at a hospital because they are injured by police, for total number of 55,000 annually. At the same time, Miller’s study showed that in 2012, an estimated 67,000 law enforcement personnel were assaulted, with 18,600 medically treated for injury and 48 killed. All of this shows, at least to me, that, yes, there’s a definite problem, and remedying it will be anything but quick or simple.