Black Lives Matter is an advocacy group founded on the belief that black lives don’t matter to police officers. They have attracted world-wide attention in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Those of us working in the criminal justice system must listen to what Black Lives Matter is saying and try to figure out if they are right. The first question that the movement brings to my mind is, “do police kill more black people than others?” If they do, that’s strong evidence that black lives don’t matter to the police.
As everyone knows, “a primary obstacle to the study of police use of force has been the lack of readily available data.” (Roland G. Fryer, Jr., An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force (2017) [“Fryer”].) “A simple count of the number of police shootings that occur does little to explore whether racial differences in the frequency of officer-involved shootings are due to police malfeasance or differences in suspect behavior.” (Id.)
Professor Roland Fryer conducted a study of police use of force. His goal was to provide data to the argument that police are racially baised. He summarized his findings:
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 – 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, at p. 1.
This conclusion was controversial. That’s why I think that we should look a little closer at the study.
What Are Professor Fryer’s Biases?
Fryer has written that he lived the life “of a Southern black boy who grew up without a mother and knows what it’s like to swallow the bitter pill of police brutality.” He describes the genesis of his paper. “In 2015, after watching Walter Scott get gunned down, on video, by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer, I set out on a mission to quantify racial differences in police use of force.”
Even Fryer’s paper almost explicitly declares its biases. It starts off with a summary of police violence against black people. Fryer summarizes the history of policing by claiming that, “[f]or much of the 20th century, law enforcement chose to brazenly enforce the status quo of overt discrimination, rather than protect and serve all citizens.” That’s an extremely broad statement that many would disagree with, and which has nothing to do with the economic analysis in the paper. Fryer also summarizes the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner but leaves out facts that tend to exculpate the officers. He ends the paper with the sentence “Black Dignity Matters.” (Fryer at p. 40.)
In the Wall Street Journal, Fryer wrote, “Are there racial differences in the most extreme forms of police violence? The Southern boy in me says yes; the economist says we don’t know.”
Police Are More Likely to Use Non-Lethal Force on Non-Whites
Fryer starts by analyzing less than lethal force. He notes that the use of force is extremely rare. For example, 0.26% of interactions between police and civilians involve an officer drawing any weapon. Only 0.02% rise to the level of baton use. The raw data shows that blacks and Hispanics are more than 50% more likely to have police use force. Fryer then accounts for 125 variables, including “baseline characteristics, encounter characteristics, civilian behavior, precinct and year fixed effects.” (Fryer at p. 3.) He finds that despite accounting for these variables, police still use force more often on non-whites. Even though there are racial differences in the use of non-lethal force, Fryer does not find that they are the result of racism. He simply says that they are unexplained racial disparities. “As economists, we don’t get to label unexplained racial disparities ‘racism.'” For good reason: these differences could be the result of many unmeasureable factors. To jump to racism is irresponsible without evidence.
There Are No Racial Differences in Officer-Involved Shootings
In stark contrast to non-lethal uses of force, we find that, conditional on a police interaction, there are no racial differences in officer-involved shootings on either the extensive or intensive margins.Fryer, at p. 4.
In fact, controlling for variables, Fryer found “that blacks are 27.4 percent less likely to be shot at by police relative to non-black, non-Hispanics.” (Id. at p. 5.) He cautions that the relative variability “is measured with considerable error and not statistically significant.” (Id.) In other words, it’s hard to tell how much less likely blacks are to be shot, but it is possible to tell that they are less likely to be shot. He has other caveats as well; everyone should carefully read this paper. The most important, to my mind, is that some of the conclusions are based on police reports, which may be written in such a way as to minimize bad conduct.
Who is Roland G. Fryer, Jr.?
Roland G. Fryer is a professor in the Dept. of Economics at Harvard University, a member of the National Bureau of Economics Research, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. He was also “chief equality officer” for New York City’s Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Fryer is black. I normally wouldn’t mention it, but I’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric lately directing white allies to listen to black people. When he was a young man, Roland worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru. He went on to become the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard. He is a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
Fryer’s conclusions were controversial. Dean Knox, a Princeton professor, criticized them in two papers. They were criticized even more in the press. Here’s an example. The Guardian screws up statistics on police shootings and fails to even mention this paper in an article on the subject. The statistics and omissions are so bad you have to wonder what the editor was thinking. Moreover, at least two other studies, both published in 2016—by Phillip Atiba Goff et al. and Ted R. Miller et al.—have since found the same conclusions using different data.
Fryer was placed on administrative leave for two years, beginning in 2019, for sexual harassment. You can read about the substance of the allegations here.