The following is a guest post by Michelle Phelps.
A new study by Harvard Economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. hit The Upshot column at the New York Times today, with “surprising new evidence” that there is no racial bias in who gets shot by the police. The study is currently posted as a working paper with NBER, so it has not yet received peer-review or been published. As we saw last week with The Upshot column by Justin Wolfers on gender bias in clock-stopping policies (which was heavily critiqued), such research findings should be treated as provisional. (I’m also putting aside the fact that the study relies primarily on police reports, which in several cases we have reason to doubt.) However, even if we take the paper at face value, there is strong reason to question the conclusion of “no bias” in police shootings.
The paper is an ambitious account of racial differences in various kinds of use of force by police, using data from jurisdictions across the country. Fryer relies on several datasets to make his case, including data on stop-and-frisk stops in New York City; a survey of citizens’ interactions with police; event summaries from incidents where police fired their weapons in Austin, Dallas, Houston, several Florida counties, and Los Angeles county; and arrest reports from police-civilian interactions that involve an arrest for a serious, violent crime, including attempted murder of police, aggravated assault, or resisting arrest in Houston.
The results show extensive disparities in officers’ use of force in non-lethal situations, even controlling for officers’ reports of victims’ behavior during the interaction. Similar community-level disparities that are unexplained by differences in crime rates emerge from a recent report from the Center for Policing Equity. Simply put, police officers are much more likely to “put hands on” black and Hispanic civilians as compared to their white counterparts, slapping, grabbing, and pushing them violently into walls and the ground. On this point, Fryer, the Times reporters, and I are all in complete agreement.
Where we diverge is the interpretation of the data on racial differences in who gets shot by the police. The New York Times article reports, “In the tense moments when a shooting may occur, are police officers more likely to fire if the suspect is black?” The answer, according to Fryer, is no. His estimates (which have large standard errors) suggest that there is no difference by race in serious police-civilian encounters (both before and after controlling for suspect and officer characteristics). In fact, the point estimates are negative, suggesting that if anything whites face a higher chance of being shot at in these interactions (although the confidence interval includes zero).
Should we conclude then that there is “no bias” in police shootings? I don’t think so—for a couple of reasons. First, there is extensive evidence (including in the datasets Fryer considers) of large racial disparities in who gets stopped by police, even controlling for differences in crime rates (perhaps especially under policies like New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk”). Because of this, the “hit rate”—or the percent of times a stop ends with a confirmation of wrong-doing—is often higher for whites than blacks. Even if police pulled the trigger without “bias,” this disparity in stops would produce vastly unequal death rates.
This means that when we start the analysis by looking at encounters with police, we have already washed away some of the relevant racial bias. The unique data on police-citizen encounters Fryer relies on from Houston allows him in effect to “control” for the propensity to come into contact with the police in the first place. This is likely part of the reason he finds no evidence of bias in lethal interactions, while others have shown substantial racial disparities. For example, in a 2015 Plos One article, Cody T. Ross estimates that black Americans’ probability of being shot by the police is 3 times the rate for whites—and the disparity goes up to more than 20 in some counties.
Further, we know that racial disparities in police encounters increase for more minor stops. For example, in their book Pulled Over, Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald P. Haider-Markel show that there are no disparities in police stops for unambiguous traffic safety stops (e.g. running a stop sign), but for investigatory stops, where police pull over drivers deemed “suspicious,” black drivers were nearly three times more likely to be stopped and five times more likely to have their cars searched. It is these kinds of everyday shake-downs, or “driving while black,” that fuel the racial policing divide. And it is when these kinds of interactions turn deadly—selling loose cigarettes [Eric Garner], sitting in a subway station [Oscar Grant], selling CDs [Alton Sterling]—that the public fury over policing injustices ignites.
Thus, to rigorously test the hypothesis of whether black Americans are more likely to be killed by police, we need to consider both unequal rates of police encounters and the outcomes of those interactions. Given the deep disparities in low-level contacts with the police, evaluating the risk of these encounters turning lethal seems particularly important. This is a different question than the one Fryer answers with data on serious arrest incidents, which we would expect to show smaller racial disparities. Indeed, evidence from FBI reports of police shootings suggest that when the initial interaction is less serious (e.g. when the suspect has no weapon), racial disparities are the greatest. In Ross’ study, the race divide was so large that the rates of police shootings were higher for unarmed black suspects than armed white suspects.
This debate highlights the complexities of defining “bias.” What do we control for? Jerome Miller eloquently wrote of the juvenile system that each stage of criminal justice processing is a “written apologia … for what was about to happen at the next” (57). If police stop black Americans more often, they will undoubtedly be arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts. Then, voila, those higher arrest rates can be used as evidence of inherent criminality and marshalled to justify disparities in treatment by the criminal justice system.
How too do we “control” for the persistent housing disparities, driven by the legacies and continued force of racism, which push black Americans into (and next door to) neighborhoods with rates of poverty higher than almost any white Americans experience? As with so many areas of social inequality, commentators want to highlight individual racists—identifying which cops show racial prejudice (and, on the other side, which victims “deserved” to be shot)—instead of the broader structural forces shaping unequal outcomes.
All of these forces produce racialized differences in the experience of policing. As Fryer and the Times points out, most police interactions (thankfully) do not end with a shooting. This means that even when stops are plentiful, analyzing racial disparities in this rare outcome is difficult. Yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying to analyze when and where various kinds of bias influence policing outcomes. As with research on sentencing outcomes, scholars studying the police would benefit from using the cumulative disadvantage framework, examining how these disparities create cascade effects that ultimately end with tragically high death rates for young black men.
In the second police shooting to flood the news this week, Philando Castile, a young black man, was shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota (my home state) after being pulled over. His death was broadcast in real-time by his girlfriend, who was in the car along with her 4 year old daughter. The video sparked a new round of #BlackLivesMatter protests in the Twin Cities and beyond. Philando Castile was stopped by the police more than 52 times (!) in the years before his untimely death and owed the courts more than $6,000 for various fines and feeds for miscellaneous petty violations. Rather than the narrow question of individual-level “bias” in isolated cases of officer shootings, it is these deep race (and class) inequities—in who gets stopped by the police and how they are treated by the justice system—that should command our attention.
Update/Correction: This post initially noted that the Policing Equity report found racial disparities in lethal use of force. That was incorrect. The study by Policing Equity did not have a sufficient number of cases of lethal shootings to draw firm conclusions. They did find race differences in for non-lethal use of force. For more on that report and Fryer’s findings, see this Buzzfeed story.
 Ross finds that the black-white divide in the probability of being shot is larger for suspects who were unarmed (probability ratio of 3.5) verses armed (probability ratio of 2.9), but the confidence intervals overlap. In contrast, Fryer’s study finds that there is no difference between the percent of black verses white suspects that were armed among those shot at by police.
 In the video of his death, his girlfriend reports that they were ostensibly pulled over for a broken taillight. Some media outlets are reporting that the reason for the stop given over the police broadcast was that the Castile looked like a recent robbery suspect “because of the wide set nose.”