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The police threat to black America

Written By | Jul 18, 2016

WASHINGTON, July 18, 2016 — Do the police have it out for black people? If you’re stopped by the police, are you more likely to end up dead if you are black than if you are white?

Dr. Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, brings the tools of econometrics to bear on those questions, and the tools of economic theory to bear on a model to help explain his results. His entire paper makes good reading for anyone interested in the hows of empirical economic research, though the online commentary makes clear that few people have bothered to read it before commenting on it.

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Much of the paper is unintelligible without some knowledge of statistics and probability, a bit of algebra, a dash of game theory and fluency in economic jargon. But the concluding section is crystal clear. If you are unwilling to read the entire paper, at least read the conclusion, and accept that the logic that leads him to his conclusions is solid.

On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences—sometimes quite large—in police use of force … [As] use of force increases from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force. Yet, on the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls.

Some pundits have focused on that last sentence: Whether you are black or white, if you are stopped by the police, your odds of being shot are the same. There is no bias. However, these same observers haven’t noticed or don’t care that Fryer finds clear evidence of bias, just not in the use of lethal force.

Critics object that blacks are 13 percent of the population yet are about a third of the fatalities; how does Fryer find no bias? He deals only with people who are stopped by the police, not with the whole population. If half of people stopped by the police were black and half were white, about half the fatalities would be black, half white. If a third of fatalities are black, then about a third of people stopped are black.

Blacks are shot and killed by police at 2.5 times the rate whites are, but that is because blacks are stopped by the police at 2.5 times the rate whites are. That is clear even with much simpler statistical tools than Fryer uses; you could have learned as much by reading the Washington Post.

There are two points here that are ignored by apologists for shootings of blacks by police. First is that the police stop black Americans far more often than they do whites; second is that regardless of the nature of the stop and the behavior of the person stopped, blacks are subject to higher levels of violence by police than whites, short of lethal force. That is, blacks are more likely to be roughly handled, handcuffed, thrown to the ground, tased or hit with a baton, regardless of whether they cooperate with police.

Those two points matter. They color our expectations going into dealings with the police, and they color the expectations of police when dealing with the public.

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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes an episode at a physics conference he attended in 1991. Tyson, an astrophysicist and current director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History who happens to be black, had moved with several other physicists after the conference banquet to a hotel common-room to talk, as physicists do, about life, the universe, and everything:

One by one we each recalled multiple incidents of being stopped by the police. … One of my colleagues had been stopped for driving too slowly. He was admiring the local flora as he drove through a New England town in the autumn. … Still another colleague had been stopped and questioned for jogging down the street late at night. …

There was the time I was stopped late at night at an underpass on an empty road in New Jersey for having changed lanes without signaling. The officer told me to get out of my car and questioned me for ten minutes around back with the bright head lights of his squad car illuminating my face. Is this your car? Yes. Who is the woman in the passenger seat? My wife. Where are you coming from? My parents’ house. Where are you going? Home. What do you do for a living? I am an astrophysicist at Princeton University. What’s in your trunk? A spare tire, and a lot of other greasy junk. He went on to say that the “real reason” why he stopped me was because my car’s license plates were much newer and shinier than the 17-year-old Ford that I was driving. The officer was just making sure that neither the car nor the plates were stolen.

… I had been stopped by the police while transporting my home supply of physics textbooks into my newly assigned office in graduate school. They had stopped me at the entrance to the physics building where they asked accusatory questions about what I was doing. … In total, I was stopped two or three times by other security officers while entering physics buildings, but was never stopped entering the campus gym. …

Taken one-by-one, each encounter with the law could be explained as an isolated incident where, in modern times, we all must forfeit some freedoms to ensure a safer society for us all.

Taken collectively, however, you would think the cops had a vendetta against physicists … How could this assembly of highly educated scientists, each in possession of a PhD—the highest academic degree in the land—be so vulnerable to police inquiry in their lives? Maybe the police cued on something else. Maybe it was the color of our skin. The conference I had been attending was the 23rd meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists. We were guilty not of DWI, but of other violations none of us knew were on the books: DWB (Driving While Black), WWB (Walking While Black), and of course, JBB (Just Being Black).

We are determined to reflect more on urban riots and black crime than on black contributions to physics. That isn’t irrational—you are more likely to encounter a black criminal than a black astrophysicist—but rationality isn’t always what’s called for in changing our attitudes.

There are many problems in the black community—drug use, broken families, poor education—that contribute to the disproportionate number of blacks in our criminal justice system, but these aren’t “their” problems; they are our problems. They are ours because they afflict white families as well as black families, and they are ours because the “we” here is Americans, not blacks and not whites.

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Fryer concludes his paper with this observation:

Much more troubling, due to their frequency and potential impact on minority belief formation, is the possibility that racial differences in police use of non-lethal force have spillovers on myriad dimensions of racial inequality. If, for instance, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that the world is discriminatory, then it is easy to understand why black youth invest less in human capital or black adults are more likely to believe discrimination is an important determinant of economic outcomes. Black Dignity Matters (emphasis added).

There is no bias in police shootings of civilians; that doesn’t mean those shootings are no big deal. Police treatment of black Americans is a very big deal.

In Madrid on July 10, President Obama made this observation: “There are legitimate issues that have been raised, and there’s data and evidence to back up the concerns that are being expressed by these protesters.

“And if police organizations and departments acknowledge that there’s a problem and there’s an issue, then that, too, is going to contribute to real solutions. … It is in the interest of police officers that their communities trust them and that the kind of rancor and suspicion that exists right now is alleviated.”

Tyson’s anecdotes, Fryer’s data and the killings of police and civilians all tell us that there’s a problem. It comes from both police and civilians, and it will take both to fix it. Black lives matter. Police lives matter. Dignity matters.

They are all worth fighting for.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.