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NBER Study: No racial bias in police shootings

Odessa Police Cpl. Marshall Williams, left, and Cpl. Cory Wester hold hands during a prayer gathering on Friday July 8, 2016 outside of the Odessa Police Station in Odessa, Texas. (Edyta Blaszczyk/Odessa American via AP)

(Edyta Blaszczyk/Odessa American via AP)

A new study found that there is no racial bias in police shootings, despite the current public perception that African Americans are often targeted by police officers.

The study, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, examined more than a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida, and California. The study found that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. Black men are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground, or pepper-sprayed by a police officer.

However, when it comes to police shootings, no bias toward African Americans was found.

The findings of this study contradicts the perception that many Americans have in the wake of police shootings that took the lives 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.

Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard, said his anger following the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray drove him to study whether African Americans are targeted in police shootings.

“You know, protesting is not my thing. But data is my thing. So I decided that I was going to collect a bunch of data and try to understand what really is going on when it comes to racial differences in police use of force,” Fryer said in a New York Times article.

He and a group of student researchers spent about 3,000 hours assembling data from police reports in Houston; Austin, Tex.; Dallas; Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and four other counties in Florida. Fryer and his fellow researchers studied 1,332 shootings between 2000 and 2015.

Fryer and his team found that in officer-involved shootings, officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white. Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon. Their results go against the idea that the police wield lethal force with racial bias.

However, this data only included police encounters in which a shooting took place. The researchers have yet to find out if police officers are more likely to fire if the suspect is black in the tense moments when a shooting may occur.

To answer this question, Mr. Fryer focused on Houston, Texas. The Houston Police Department allowed Fryer and his researchers to look at reports for shootings and for arrests when lethal force might have been justified. Fryer defined this group to include suspects the police charged with serious offenses like attempting to murder an officer, or evading or resisting arrest. Fryer also considered suspects shocked with Tasers.

Through analyzing the Houston Police Department’s data, Fryer found that officers in Houston were about 20 percent less likely to shoot a suspect if the suspect was black in tense situations. This estimate was not very precise, however. More data is needed for a firmer conclusion.

Nevertheless, in a variety of models that controlled for different factors and used different definitions of tense situations, Fryer found that blacks were either less likely to be shot or there was no difference between blacks and whites.

“It is the most surprising result of my career,” Fryer said.

While Fryer’s study did not say specifically whether the most famous shootings that have ignited the nation’s debate on police shootings are free of racial bias, Fryer’s data show that contrary to popular opinion, there is no racial bias in police shootings.

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