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The Big Problem With That Big Study on Police Shootings and Racial Profiling

And the need for better data.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, thousands of protesters across the nation have flooded the streets to ask one simple question of their elected officials: Why are the police biased to wantonly and indiscriminately gun down black citizens? The answer, according to a major study published on Monday, may be shockingly simple: they aren’t.

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by economist Roland Fryer found that, while racial bias exists in other police applications of force — brandishing weapons, tackling suspects, or using a baton, for example — there exists no disparity when it comes to lethal force. While Fryer’s study of 1,000 shooting incidents in 10 major cities found that blacks and Hispanics are reportedly 50 percent more likely to endure non-lethal force at the hands of police officers than whites, his research bears “no definitive proof of discrimination” in officer-involved shootings.

If this data seems surprising, it should; even Fryer himself, whose research was directly inspired by the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, called it “the most surprising result of my career.” It runs counter to both the public’s perception of police shootings and data gathered since Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Washington Post and an equally comprehensive analysis by the Guardian show that, in 2015, African Americans were shot and killed by the police at a higher rate than any other population (three times as high). Similarly, a comprehensive analysis of county-level police data from the United States Police-Shooting Database found that unarmed African Americans are as likely to be shot as armed whites. So why the major difference this time around?

How can local, state, and federal authorities craft effective policies that curb police violence when they don’t understand the extent of the problem?

Ironically, the major gulf between the NBER paper and other bodies of research captures a major problem facing institutions attempting to grapple with the growing body count: There simply isn’t enough data to understand the scope of racially biased police shootings. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began requesting more data from local police forces as part of its Uniform Crime Reporting system in April 2015, and director James Comey himself condemned the absence of comprehensive data on officer-involved shootings as “embarrassing and ridiculous.” How can local, state, and federal authorities craft effective policies that curb police violence when they don’t understand the extent of the problem? How can the lawmakers care about black lives when, in the annals of data that matter, they are effectively invisible.

But the problem isn’t just a question of sample size of knowledge management on the part of America’s sprawling state and federal bureaucracy: The data itself is flawed. Fryer even acknowledges this in his paper, writing that the self-selecting departments “only supplied the data because they are either enlightened or were not concerned about what the analysis would reveal.” Additionally, data “may contain police officers who present contextual factors at that time of an incident in a biased manner.”

Indeed, discrepancies between officer reports and witness video of victims like Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and Alton Sterling only underscore a sad truth: Police officers can be dishonest, and grand juries will often believe them.

The likelihood of some legislative feat that creates, unifies, and streamlines a national system of police shootings and department-level accountability is frustratingly slim. Despite the seemingly overwhelming tide of mass shootings as a public-health menace, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Health can’t even put together data on gun violence thanks to the Dickey Amendment, which essentially promised the National Rifle Association that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control … may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Apropos, the prevalence of racial biases in the application of non-lethal force revealed by Fryer’s analysis are no less important; they, too, continue to erode trust between minority populations and local authorities, and, in turn, cloud the conversation around police shooting. And as the New York Timesnotes, the issue may be less about race and more about the use of excessive force in African-American communities disproportionately affected by higher rates of poverty and violent crime. Often, these racially charged interactions are symptoms of broader systemic racial inequality in a given neighborhood.

Unfortunately, we’ll never have a more complete understanding until we’re able to collect more data — and it’s up to public servants, both local and national, to ensure that lawmakers get the clearest picture possible of the dangers African-American citizens face with their local police force.