Study Shows Race Triggers Police Violence but Not Shootings

"It is the most surprising result of my career," says economist Roland Fryer.

Getty Images / Scott Olson

A new study out on Monday from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that police are more violent towards black people, but do not shoot them more often than other races. The results come as Baton Rouge and Minneapolis grieve for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men killed by active-duty police officers. And they also come as a surprise given the national conversation around the repeated killing of black men by men in uniform.

“It is the most surprising result of my career,” Ronald G. Fryer, economist and lead author of the study, told the New York Times.

Fryer’s dataset analyzed more than 1,000 police shootings in Texas, Florida, and California between 2000 and 2015 to come to the result — one that might cause some to wonder WTF is going on in light of a recent onslaught of videos graphically showing white police officers shooting (oftentimes) unarmed black individuals. But the reason why this racial bias might not exist in the datasets probably is because the shootings Fryer studied include more than fatal shootings. In other words, it could be that fatal shootings are highly oriented towards black people, but in general, the use of force by the police — at least in these three states — can be argued to be colorblind.

In particular, two glaring results emerged:

1) Officers fired their weapons more often when they were involved with white suspects. In fact, Houston officers were 20% less likely to shoot at a black suspect even if the situation might usually call for deadly force.

2) Black and white suspects were equally likely to have been carrying weapons.

The third trend here is the rise of social media and video. It would make sense for us to think that now that we’ve all got a camera and video stashed in our pockets that the crime rates might differ or change in some way in the 15-year period. But Fryer’s results — again, surprisingly — indicate that that is not the case.

Fryer thinks one possible reason the data isn’t reflective of what we might expect is a simple factor: cost. Shooting a weapon isn’t cheap. There’s the threat of lawsuits and, psychologically, shooting to kill normally weighs heavily on the psyche. This might be why non-lethal force (think: pepper spray and batons) are used much more frequently that firearms and, specifically, used on black people at a much higher rate than whites.

As the Times points out, data on police shootings is embarrassingly sparse, and Fryer probably had no choice but to look at shootings as a whole in his analysis. It also worth reiterating that this is a study limited to three states (albeit large ones) and that national trends might turn these results on their head.