“It is the most surprising result of my career,” Roland G. Fryer Jr. told the New York Times after releasing the results of an interesting new study that found no racial bias in the use of lethal force by police.
Fryer is a professor of economics at Harvard, the youngest African-American to earn tenure at the university, and the winner of the John Bates Clark medal, a prize given to the most promising American economist under 40.
Fryer said his anger after the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others motivated him to look into the data to determine if it backs up public perception.
And while his study of ten police departments in Florida, Texas, and California seems to reveal police bias in the use of force, he found no racial bias in the use of deadly force. “On the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account,” the study concludes.
Fryer and his team compiled the data by reading and logging information from thousands of police reports from Houston; Austin, Tex.; Dallas; Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and four other counties in Florida.
This methodology allowed them to control for the complexities of each of the 1,332 shootings they studied. They took into account factors like the suspect’s age and race, the race of the police officers, the time of day, and the particular suspicious activity being investigated.
They concluded that in the cities in question the officers were actually more likely to shoot without being attacked first if the suspect was white.
The Times is quick to point out that the relatively small sample size renders the study somewhat inconclusive. And Fryer emphasized to the newspaper that “the work is not the definitive analysis of police shootings” and that “more data would be needed to understand the country as a whole.”
Nevertheless, Fryer’s results fly in the face of the now-common public perception that police officers are hunting and killing young black men. In these cities at least, many of which are in the south, the raw data tells a much different story.
The study, of course, does not absolve officers in the most recent police shootings that have gained national attention. But it does suggest that an honest, objective look at the data is necessary before any responsible policy decisions can be made—whether at the national level or within local police departments.