Roland G. Fryer Jr. called the finding “the most surprising result” of his career.
In a New York Times article published Monday, Fryer, the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard, said his research finds no racial bias in police shootings.
The result contradicts the mental image of police shootings that many Americans hold in the wake of the killings (some captured on video) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Laquan McDonald in Chicago; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Walter Scott in South Carolina; Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
The study did not say whether the most egregious examples — the kind of killings at the heart of the nation’s debate on police shootings — are free of racial bias. Instead, it examined a much larger pool of shootings, including nonfatal ones. It focused on what happens when police encounters occur, not how often they happen. (There’s a disproportionate number of tense interactions among blacks and the police when shootings could occur, and thus a disproportionate outcome for blacks.) Racial differences in how often police-civilian interactions occur have been shown to reflect greater structural problems in society.
The findings basically dovetail with a Washington Post study published in 2015 that analyzed police shootings.
John Hinderaker, writing at Powerline, offers a summary of the Post’s research:
What was the racial breakdown of those who were shot by police in 2015? The largest number, 494, almost exactly half, were white. 258 were black, 172 were Hispanic, and the remaining 66 were either “other” or unknown. (Interestingly, Asians are rarely shot by police officers.)
The 258 blacks represent 26% of the total. That is about double the percentage of blacks in the American population. Is that prima facie evidence of racism on the part of law enforcement? Of course not. It is common knowledge that blacks have an unusually high rate of contact with the police, both as victims and as perpetrators. In 2012-2013, the Department of Justice found that blacks were the perpetrators of 24% of all violent crimes where the race of the perpetrator was known (in 7.8% of violent crimes, it was unknown).
So the percentage of blacks fatally shot by police officers (26%) is almost exactly equal to the percentage of blacks committing violent crimes (24%). Indeed, given that the black homicide rate is around eight times the white rate, it is surprising that the portion of blacks fatally shot by policemen is not higher.
Are there reasons to doubt the conclusion?
The Times article points out that police testimony in reports, which is often used in such studies, are not considered entirely reliable. But Fryer told the Times his research showed similar results regardless of whether or not he used data based solely on police narratives.
And there is no reason to doubt the reliability of Fryer. His credentials are impeccable and other aspects of his research do reveal racial bias in non-lethal uses of force by police. For example, blacks are more likely to be pepper-sprayed, pushed against a wall, hand-cuffed or have a weapon drawn on them.
Could it be possible that being black in America does not make you more likely to die from police bullets?