No Racial Bias In Police Shootings, But… – Harvard Research

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Interesting study from Harvard – An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force – NYT has some background here ie “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. See more below

H/T ZeroHedge

This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force – officerinvolved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.


VI. Conclusion

The issue of police violence and its racial incidence has become one of the most divisive topics in American discourse. Emotions run the gamut from outrage to indifference. Yet, very little data exists to understand whether racial disparities in police use of force exist or might be explained by situational factors inherent in the complexity of police-civilian interactions. Beyond the lack of data, the analysis of police behavior is fraught with difficulty including, but not limited to, the reliability of the data that does exist and the fact that one cannot randomly assign race.

With these caveats in mind, this paper takes first steps into the treacherous terrain of understanding the nature and extent of racial differences in police use of force. On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences – sometimes quite large – in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors at the time of the police-civilian interaction. Interestingly, as use of force increases from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.3 (0.04) percent more likely to endure some form of force. Yet, on the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls.

We argue that these facts are most consistent with a model of taste-based discrimination in which police officers face discretely higher costs for officer-involved shootings relative to non-lethal uses of force. This model is consistent with racial differences in the average returns to compliant behaviors, the results of our tests of discrimination based on Knowles, Persico, and Todd (2001) and Anwar and Fang (2006), and the fact that the odds-ratio is large and significant across all intensities of force – even after accounting for a rich set of controls. In the end, however, without randomly assigning race, we have no definitive proof of discrimination. Our results are also consistent with mismeasured contextual factors

As police departments across America consider models of community policing such as the Boston Ten Point Coalition, body worn cameras, or training designed to purge officers of implicit bias, our results point to another simple policy experiment: increase the expected price of excessive force on lower level uses of force. To date, very few police departments across the country either collect data on lower level uses of force or explicitly punish officers for misuse of these tactics.

The appealing feature of this type of policy experiment is that it does not require officers to change their behavior in extremely high-stakes environments. Many arguments about police reform fall victim to the “my life versus theirs, us versus them” mantra. Holding officers accountable for the misuse of hands or pushing individuals to the ground is not likely a life or death situation and, as such, may be more amenable to policy change.


The importance of our results for racial inequality in America is unclear. It is plausible that racial differences in lower level uses of force are simply a distraction and movements such as Black Lives Matter should seek solutions within their own communities rather than changing the behaviors of police and other external forces.

Much more troubling, due to their frequency and potential impact on minority belief formation, is the possibility that racial differences in police use of non-lethal force have spillovers on myriad dimensions of racial inequality. If, for instance, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that the world is discriminatory, then it is easy to understand why black youth invest less in human capital or black adults are more likely to believe discrimination is an important determinant of economic outcomes. Black Dignity Matters.


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