A new study of over a thousand police-involved shootings found what researcher Harvard Prof. Roland G. Fryer Jr. calls “the most surprising result of my career”: There is no racial bias in police-involved shootings. Not only are blacks not more likely to be fired upon by police than whites in tense moments, the study found that, if anything, they are less likely to be shot at.
In what is one of the most comprehensive studies on the issue to date, Fryer — an African-American economist who says he began the study in response to his anger over the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray — examined 1,332 shootings that occurred between 2000 and 2015 in 10 major police departments. By the end of the exhaustive research, Fryer and his teams spent an estimated 3,000 hours poring over the data from Los Angeles, Ca., three cities in Texas (Houston, Austin, and Dallas), and four counties and two cities in Florida (Orlando and Jacksonville).
Rather than a superficial study of statistics, Fryer’s team probed deeper into each case to make sure they were conducting an apples to apples investigation. In its summary of the study, the New York Times provides some of the key details of cases the study incorporated in its analysis, including, “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?” Some of the study’s driving questions included was a black suspect more likely to be fired upon — in cases where lethal force was justified and when it was unjustified — and did the officer shoot more quickly at black suspects?
To his admitted “surprise,” Fryer concluded that the racial bias narrative is demonstrably false when it comes to police-involved shootings. Here are six takeaways from Fryer’s study.
1. Police are not more likely to fire on blacks than whites. In fact, blacks are 20% less likely to be fired on.
When Fryer and his team dug into the details of the 1,332 officer-involved shootings, they found that officers were actually less likely to fire on black suspects without having been attacked.
Fryer found the same to be true when he examined cases that did not result in shootings. Using data from the Houston Police Department, Fryer looked at arrests where lethal force might have been justified — where suspects were arrested for serious offenses, like resisting arrest, fleeing, or attack an officer — and found that if a suspect was black, officers were about 20% less likely to shoot. His findings included that blacks were about 24-22% less likely to be shot at when police “might plausibly have fired.”
2. Blacks and whites involved in police shootings were equally likely to be carrying a weapon.
As the New York Times highlights, Fryer also found that black and white civilians involved in police shootings “were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon.” This conclusion likewise directly undermines the assumption that racial bias is a major factor in officers’ use of lethal force, as some have posited that a disproportionate number of blacks were unarmed in police shootings as compared to whites.
3. Blacks are more likely to be treated worse by officers when it comes to physical contact.
While the study found that black men and women were not more likely to be fired upon by officers, according to a study of NYPD stop-and-frisk records from 2003-2013, they were treated worse by officers when it came to physical contact, including “use of hands” (17% more often), being pushed to the wall (18% more), use of handcuffs (16%), having weapons drawn on them (19%), being pushed to the ground (18%), and having a weapon pointed at them (24%), and being pepper sprayed (25% more, though they only assessed 9 cases).
4. The notion that police officers’ accounts are biased and unreliable is largely a myth.
Fryer’s research revealed that concerns about the reliability of police reports were also largely unfounded, his results being about the same whether or not he referred to the recounting of events provided by officers.
5. Use of mobile video to document alleged police brutality is not impacting policing practices.
Another conclusion of the study was that the use of cell phones and social media to document alleged police brutality does not appear to have changed policing practices, a question that many have posed in recent years following high-profile videos of police encounters.
6. Fryer’s study aligns with other research.
Fryer’s findings align with other studies that have found that the narrative of racial bias in use of lethal force by police is largely based on de-contextualized data and false assumptions. In 2015, for example, 50% of the victims of police shootings were white, while 26% were black. Some have tried to argue that this is evidence of racial bias against blacks because they represent only 15% of the population; however, as Heather Mac Donald points out, blacks account for a disproportionate percentage of major crimes, including 62% of robberies, 57% of murders and 45% of assaults. Another example of de-contextualized data is that showing a higher percent of unarmed blacks who are shot than unarmed whites, but as both Mac Donald and Fryer found, when the details of the cases are included, such statistics turn out to be misleading.
The reality, as Prof. Fryer and others have found, is that our law enforcement is largely composed of men and women doing their best to protect the lives of citizens, handling what are often life and death situations as fairly and safely as they can.
This article has been revised and reformatted.