Hard data from Harvard about police violence & race

Summary: At last in the long debate about police violence we have an actual analysis (rather than the amateur tallies). Professor Fryer Jr. (economics, Harvard) looks at a sample of the data and discovers some surprising news. He gives some innovative suggests for practical police reforms (i.e., possible to implement). His conclusions are essential reading for anyone concerned about this vital issue.

Protect and Serve

An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force
By Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2016

“This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50% 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 – officer-involved 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.”

Fryer evaluates seven levels of force short of shooting by police: hands, pushing to wall, handcuffs, drawing a weapon, pushing to ground, pointing a weapon, using a spray/baton. The following graph shows the data by race and hour of day, from a sample of New York Police Department stop and frisks from 2003-2013.

Fryer: police use of force short of shooting by race

Fryer’s conclusions (red emphasis added)

“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) 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. … 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.”

————————– End conclusion. ————————–

In his conclusion, Fryer points to something too hot to mention: the stratospheric high level of crime by Blacks in America. This horrific reality overshadows so much in America, a problem our can-do people cannot solve, but must be solved.

Roland Fryer Jr.

About the author

Roland G. Fryer, Jr. is a Professor of Economics at Harvard. Fryer’s research combines economic theory, empirical evidence, and randomized experiments to help design more effective government policies. His work on education, inequality, and race has been widely cited in media outlets and Congressional testimony.

Professor Fryer was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the John Bates Clark Medal, the Calvó-Armengol Prize, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

This is from his bio at the Harvard website. See his publications.


About the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Founded in 1920, the NBER is the nation’s leading nonprofit economic research organization, a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to conducting economic research.

The Bureau’s associates concentrate on four types of empirical research: developing new statistical measurements, estimating quantitative models of economic behavior, assessing the economic effects of public policies, and projecting the effects of alternative policy proposals. The NBER is supported by research grants from government agencies and private foundations, by investment income, and by contributions from individuals and corporations.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about increasing income inequality and falling social mobility, especially these…

  1. Do not talk to the police (important advice in New America).
  2. Police grow more powerful; the Republic slides another step into darkness. Can cellphone cameras save us?
  3. Shootings by police show their evolution into “security services”; bad news for the Republic.
  4. Myths and truth about police violence, & why change is coming.
  5. No need for police reform, since only criminals have trouble with police!
  6. Reforms are coming to America’s police, either with them or over them. Which?
  7. Are protests about police killings causing crime to rise?
  8. Learning about the police to understand why they so often act badly.

For a deeper exploration of this problem I recommend Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) and Police Corruption: Exploring Police Deviance and Crime by Maurice Punch (Prof Criminology at the London School of Economics.

Rise of the Warrior Cop
Available at Amazon.
Police Corruption
Available at Amazon.

25 thoughts on “Hard data from Harvard about police violence & race”

  1. Without an in-depth study of his metrics and variables – all that contextual and civilian behavioral stuff that was mentioned – it’s impossible to judge the overall worth of his study.

    Also, Fryer is a Black and, hence, his analysis is inherently suspect due to his life-long, ingrained, implicit bias against law enforcement.

    I will say this against the study when it comes to lower level of “force” – Removing it will result in a greater need overall for higher levels of force, up to and including presumptively lethal force and this will break down across cultural – what we love to call racial – lines. The officer needs to maintain control of the situation and the perp and, in the case of Black males, that often requires the use of those lower levels of force to do so since the Black male is going to be aggressive and defiant because his culture says that he’s less of a man if he isn’t.

    1. Jonolan,

      “Without an in-depth study of his metrics and variables… it’s impossible to judge the overall worth of his study”

      Duh. But you are missing the point. It’s a step up from the amateur counting, based on newspaper articles, that have been our only data at this point.

      (2) “Fryer is a Black and, hence, his analysis is inherently suspect due to his life-long, ingrained, implicit bias against law enforcement.”

      Quite absurd.

      (3) “when it comes to lower level of “force” – Removing it will result”

      Even more absurd. Please cite an article or speech proposing “removing” use of force by police. If you are attempting to say that reducing use of force will have ill effects, that’s (again) absurd. Use of force by US police greatly exceeds that of any developed nation, with no visible benefit. It does reduce their legitimacy with many of the communities they serve. That legitimacy is their their primary protection, without which they’re just a poorly trained and lightly armed army of occupation.

  2. Fryer’s inherent bias against the police as a Black male is no more absurd than his statement that the police have an is no more absurd than his statement that the police have an inherent bias against Black males.

    As for the use of force – we’re going to disagree on that. The difference between us is that I’ve been in positions of maintaining order – “army of occupation” you’d call it – in different areas and know that the use of low level force – laying hands upon, moving aggressor into a controlled position, etc – is often necessary to prevent an escalation. I also learned that when its needed varies greatly depending upon the culture one is dealing with.

    But, I’ll give you that it’s, inherently flawed or not, better than random counting. At least some normalization of the data was done and some sort of accounting for the situations.

  3. Legitimacy and another set of words, community consent, are paramount in this situation.
    It is clearly missing and so the support is gone.
    Noted the end: “Black Dignity matters.” Add on Dignity Matters.
    Calls to my mind the quick and early major problem in Iraq. The transition from Liberator to Occupier was seen immediately by the Iraqis.
    And so it goes.


  4. Jonolon: You have set the bar for any objective empirical analysis of the issue very high. You provide no evidence for the charge that Prof. Fryer has not done an objective analysis. In fact your words suggest that it is you who likely suffer from bias.

    At the same time I agree that reliably measuring and standardizing contextual variables is very difficult. But such analysis is critical if we are to assess what is actually going on in civilian-police interactions. Obviously there may be a host of questions about the statistical approach used. One relatively easy way of examining his approach would be to identify a sample of high profile cases where there was considerable coverage and determine the accuracy and adequacy of the encoding.

    1. Bernie,

      I agree. I hope (and expect) that Professor Fryer’s research is just the first of many such — informing a debate that so far has been conducted with actual data.

      His conclusions are, imo, powerful and important. They’re remain so even when his data and analysis are superseded by later research.

      1. There are undoubtedly areas where this study can be questioned and strengthened. But as far as I can see it will take some careful analysis to go beyond criticisms that are largely, “I don’t agree with your findings therefore your study can be ignored.” Here is one brand new response that only shows that the author does not have a clue about how to tackle these types of issues.

        Did a study really find there aren’t racial disparities in police shootings? Not so fast” by German Lopez at Vox – “There are very big caveats to this study.”

      2. Bernie,

        That’s a good summary of the Vox article. The author discovers that this study, among the first in this field, is not the analysis of the Cosmic All that answers all Questions about Police Violence. Daft.

        Prof Fryer is quite explicit that this is just a first cut at the problem.

  5. Studies like these are read, considered and questioned by relatively few.
    And even fewer are significantly influenced by said Studies. Does anyone think no Policy is influenced thereafter?


    1. In part yes, but in conjunction with McDonald’s War on Cops it may force a few pundits to think before adding to the dangerous and unhelpful noise surrounding the use of deadly force by our police.

      1. Bernie,

        There is no “war on cops”. That’s one of those too-useful-too-die zombie stories.

        Attacks on police have been declining for many years. Violence has ticked up and down, as tensions rise and fall. The small numbers mean that they can fluctuate easily without changing the trend.

      2. More debunking of the latest right-wing propaganda: “Data Shows That the ‘War on Cops’ is Fake” — Excerpt:

        According to the Officers Down Memorial Page, which tracks police fatalities, the number of law enforcement officers who have been intentionally killed on the job has fallen from 101 per year under President Reagan, to 90 per year under George H.W. Bush; to 81 per year under Bill Clinton; to 72 per year under George W. Bush; to 62 per year under Barack Obama — a figure that doesn’t change when accounting for the Dallas ambush.”

      3. Thank you. This is what I found. Coming from me the results might have been portrayed as political hype. Coming from you, while it might be portrayed as similar, it’s hard to go against the data.


      4. And further information from an embedded link within your offering: Police Executive Research Forum:

        “Founded in 1976 as a nonprofit organization, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) is a police research and policy organization and a provider of management services, technical assistance, and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies. PERF helps to improve the delivery of police services through the exercise of strong national leadership; public debate of police and criminal justice issues; and research and policy development.”

    2. Breton,

      I disagree. Such studies have great effect on the people who run our law enforcement systems and, more generally, political decision-makers.

      They have little effect on the vast majority of the Outer Party who read the news for entertainment, seeking thrills & a feeling of involvement. But they don’t matter anyway.

  6. I agree with all the major points you raised. I think something has been glossed over. What if the same number of Americans were killed, but they were all from some other ethnic group (Native Americans are killed at a _higher rate than blacks)? What if they were all annoying Tumberlinas? Would we be as upset?

    1. Danny,

      Thanks for those links (they’re always welcome)! It important to remember the fallen among the police. On the other hand, police are not among the most dangerous occupations. Let’s remember the fallen among the fishermen and lumberjacks, the most dangerous jobs.

  7. I did not interpret the title of McDonald’s book or the content of her articles as indicating that there was an increased number of attacks on police per se, but that the role of police was being delegitimated with claims of widespread systemic racism among the police. The data presented is useful since it cautions against the use of the Dallas tragedy, though worrying, to indicate a widespread trend.

    1. Bernie,

      That’s the downside of McDonald’s choice of title “The War on Cops“. It’s an incindiary phrase in common use that helps sell books, but might misrepresent what he is saying. Note that the first paragraph of the publishers’ summary repeats a common right-wing lie.

      “Since the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, officers have been backing off of proactive policing, and criminals are becoming emboldened.”

      There is not the slightest evidence supporting this. Most obviously, the rate of police shootings of unarmed people (the highest profile activity under “attack”) has not slowed.

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