The Fryer report shows racial bias in how police use force (even after controlling for all kinds of variables).

I’m going to say that again: the Fryer report shows that police are racially biased in how they apply force.

Unfortunately, this report is being publicized not for the demonstration of police bias, but for a surprising result which the media has reported like this “when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.”.

Let’s look closer at the surprising result because both the Fryer paper and the reporting on it are misleading at best.

The surprising result in the Fryer report is based on data from 1 police department (Houston).

The analysis proceeds by taking a set of data that is claimed to represent “interactions with police that might have resulted in the use of lethal force” and compares it with data that represents “officer involved shootings” (data from incidents that did result in the use of lethal force even if no one actually died).

We’ll call the datasets POTENTIAL and ACTUAL since I suspect this is how Fryer probably thinks of this data.

The paper states that the POTENTIAL dataset is a “random sample of police-civilian interactions from the Houston police department from arrests codes in which lethal force is more likely to be justified”.
The arrest codes used are “for the following offenses, from 2000 – 2015: aggravated assault on a peace officer, attempted capital murder of a peace officer, resisting arrest, evading arrest, and interfering in an arrest.”
The report does not discuss in detail how these arrest codes were chosen, which arrest codes were omitted, and whether any analysis was done using arrest codes other than the ones published.

The report states that the ACTUAL dataset is “all officer involved shootings in Houston from 2000 – 2015”
The report does not discuss which arrest codes end up in incidents contained in the ACTUAL dataset.

Note that the POTENTIAL dataset is not obviously a superset of the ACTUAL dataset (neither is the set of incidents from which the POTENTIAL dataset is sampled).

Fryer combines and analyzes the POTENTIAL and ACTUAL datasets to produce a conclusion: “Blacks are 23.8 percent less likely to be shot by police, relative to whites.”

Unsurprisingly this statement has been taken out of context and reported extensively. (Admittedly, even in context this statement is incredibly misleading).

It doesn’t mean what they think it means.

All it means is blacks are more strongly represented in the POTENTIAL dataset than in the ACTUAL dataset.

Let’s think about this:

The paper claims that the arrest codes used for the POTENTIAL dataset are more likely to justify extreme force. I think we can say that they are more likely to be used to justify extreme force. Arrest codes are controlled by police who have an incentive to add charges. If there are racist police, they will inflate the number of charges against black civilians relative to white ones. Of particular interest is that none of the arrest codes used for the POTENTIAL dataset require a crime to be committed against a civilian. All of the arrest codes used in the POTENTIAL dataset are for crimes against police, so there is no 3rd party validation (unlike, say, a burglary where there would typically be a non-police complainant).

On the other hand, data that ends up in the ACTUAL dataset is different. Police have no incentive to inflate the figures for shootings. Racist police have an incentive to underreport shootings against blacks compared to shootings against whites (whether they ever do is another matter).

The point is that blacks being more strongly represented in the POTENTIAL dataset than in the ACTUAL dataset is easily explained by racism. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that far from showing that police shootings show no racial bias, what this study actually demonstrates is racial bias in the charges police choose to apply; specifically that police show racial bias when applying charges that they believe justify extreme force. Given that we know that police apply force with bias, this result isn’t so surprising is it?



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