In recent years there has been an appreciable surge in tensions between the police and minority communities; namely, allegations of police discrimination in the use of force have arisen. Given the civil liberties at stake – including the very basic right to live – it is imperative to address these allegations using rigorous research. It should be noted that this is not an easy issue to address. First, there are different ways that discrimination can be defined; taste-based discrimination refers to discriminatory treatment motivated by hostility towards a certain group, while statistical discrimination refers to discriminatory outcomes motivated by factors other than bigotry (such as racial profiling and implicit bias.) While some argue that statistical discrimination is acceptable, not all agree. It is clearly difficult to come up with an answer when the question changes depending on who you ask. Moreover, this issue is difficult to tackle because it would be unethical to conduct experimental research on discriminatory use of force. Without experimental data, we cannot be as confident in our findings. That being said, valuable studies on this topic have been conducted. Given the conflicting results and limitations of these studies, however, it is difficult to conclude definitively whether or not police discriminate in their use of force.
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Some evidence certainly is consistent with the idea that police use force in a discriminatory manner. For instance, Fryer (2016) analyzed Stop and Frisk data from New York City, which indicated if force was used and included information about the person stopped (including gender, age, etc.), information about the encounter (time of day, neighborhood, etc.) and information about the civilian’s behavior. Fryer found that African Americans were 54% more likely than whites to experience force. Even after controlling for factors like baseline and encounter characteristics, as well as civilian behavior and fixed effects, African Americans were still 17% more likely to experience force. Fryer then looked at data from the Police Public Contact Survey, which are very similar to the data from New York City with the exception that they are from the civilian’s point of view. This analysis paints an even starker picture, with blacks being over 300% more likely to experience force than whites (270% more likely when controlling for various factors.) The fact that this difference persists even after controlling for multiple characteristics is compelling.
However, the control function approach taken here is not perfect; there is always the possibility that the researcher has not controlled for everything. If there were more factors that needed to be controlled for, it is possible that the differences Fryer observed would disappear once they were controlled for. Moreover, if one believes that statistical discrimination is okay, it is hard to discern whether the differential use of force is evidence of police discrimination. There is also evidence that suggests that police do not discriminate in their use of force. For example, Fryer also analyzed data from the Houston Police Department. The data consisted of the same information as the earlier analyses, but only included instances where lethal force was used. By focusing only on the riskiest situations, Fryer found no significant differences in the likelihood of blacks and whites to experience lethal force. Moreover, black victims of officer shootings were not statistically significantly less likely to be holding a weapon. It must be acknowledged that this study only looked at one city, and thus we cannot draw sweeping conclusions from it. Moreover, as Uri Simonsohn (2016) points out, if police do racially discriminate against blacks when it comes to who they arrest, they will have less risky black suspects.
This would result in the police not shooting at blacks significantly more, which would mask a true effect of discrimination. Feldman (2016) also takes issue with these findings; he argues that Fryer’s conclusion rests on an assumption that statistical discrimination is acceptable. Feldman disagrees that statistical discrimination is okay, and argues that the proportion of blacks in the population – not the proportion of blacks that are arrested – is the appropriate benchmark to use when assessing claims of discrimination. Thus, using Feldman’s definition of discrimination, Fryer’s findings would support the argument that discrimination exists. The topic of police discrimination in use of force is sensitive but critical. It is also not black-and-white. The fact that 30% of those killed by the police in 2013-2015 were black, even though only 12% of the population is black seems like clear evidence of discrimination. However, the added statistic that 44% of those who feloniously kill the police were African American nuances the picture and makes some reconsider their view of the matter. Although there have been solid attempts to answer this question, it is impossible to say whether discrimination exists given the contradicting evidence and methodological issues.
Discrimination in Police Use of Force. (2019, Apr 01).
Retrieved December 3, 2022 , from
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