834 people have been shot dead by police so far this year, according to an ongoing investigation by the Washington Post. 619 of the fatal shootings stemmed from shootouts, car jackings, stabbings, hostage situations and assaults. 29 of those killed were black and unarmed. Since the shooting of Michael Brown, it is 7 times more likely for an unarmed black man to be fatally shot by police than whites. Why?
Peaceful protests and riots alike have attempted to address the racial tensions surrounding cases of police brutality and use of force. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore and Black Lives Matter movements across the United States vocalize the frustration Black Americans feel.
Roland G. Fryer Jr’s current research seeks to address these issues. The Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard and the 2015 recipient of the American Economic Association’s John Bates Clark Medal, Fryer is trying to grasp one of the most divisive subjects in the country.
While Fryer’s work is still in progress, he came to Bates College with a myriad of statistics and analysis work showing preliminary conclusions. Using both non-lethal use of force data from New York City’s Stop and Frisk data and Officer-Involved Shooting data, Fryer wants to look at not just the number of shootings, but the context in which those shootings took place.
The results were different than what he expected: Racial biases were much higher In lower level uses of non-lethal force (starting with placing hands on a person, then escalating to push to wall or ground, drawing/pointing a weapon, using handcuffs, using pepper spray, to finally beating with a baton) than in shootings involving the police. Not only did these results show in police data, but also in the data collected from citizen surveys.
Fryer returned to the basic economic principle of incentives to begin to explain why the data shows these results. While people hear about the shootings on the news, they do not put these instances into context. There are huge disincentives to shooting your weapon as a police officer. Even with body cameras and footage, a police officer who legally discharged their gun can be off the street for months while the shooting is investigated. However, there is nothing that prevents an officer from throwing someone to the ground, or placing their hands on a person.
Yet there was more to the research than just the numbers. An economist on the “cutting edge,” Fryer takes an interdisciplinary approach to his research, adding the human component back into his work. He was inspired by his own background to tackle racial differences in police use of force. Fryer was born in Daytona Beach, FL but spent part of his childhood with his father in Lewisville, TX; he was raised by his grandmother and aunt and often found himself face to face with the police.
“I got into [this research] because of own situation,” Fryer said, “because eight out of ten of my childhood friends are either dead or in prison…For some reason I got chosen to escape that. For years I felt guilty because they had so much incredible talent that didn’t get utilized.”
Fryer carried this guilt with him for years, but now understands his role as an economist to improve the situation for others. Fryer took what he called the method acting approach to his study—the economist immersed himself this past summer in the police forces of Camden, NJ, Houston, TX and Boston, MA. Countless hours in the patrol car, spending time with the officers and even going through the “extraordinarily hard” situational police training, Fryer dropped any biases he had and sought to put himself in a police officer’s shoes. Policing is difficult. On one of his first rides out he saw someone die of a heroin overdose.
“One thing you have to learn is that police officers do this,” Fryer said, “and then they have to go back to work.” Only after experiencing police work did he feel like he could pursue his study.
So what are we supposed to do? Roland Fryer says address the low level use of force. Raise the prices. Increase the repercussions an officer faces when they push someone to the ground. Punish the actions of officers that take dignity away from Black Americans. Fryer echoed one point in particular: Why do people in Ferguson hate the police? It is because too many times they have been pushed to the ground and nothing has been done. It is not about those, like Fryer, who go against the grain – who grow up disenfranchised, but raise to the top. It is about fixing the smaller actions that occur daily.
As Fryer said, “It’s not about people who beat the odds; it is about beating the damn odds.”
This article was edited to reflect that Fryer is from Daytona Beach, FL, though spent part of his childhood in Texas.