On racial disparities in the use of force by police

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Monday's New York Times reports on an important new study examining racial differences in the use of force by police.

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force - police shootings - the study finds no racial bias.

"It is the most surprising result of my career," said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard. The study examined more than a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California.

As the New York Times story notes, the study does have some limitations, and the subject cries out for more research (and better data collection), but the findings cannot be dismissed lightly. The study itself is by an extremely well-respected researcher who did not expect to find these results.

For some initial commentary on the study, and how it relates to other research findings in this area, see this Robert VerBruggen essay. As he notes, the research to date suggests that racial prejudice by police officers plays a lesser role than broader societal factors in any racial disparities in policing. If so, this might suggest that broader institutional reforms affecting the frequency and nature of police-civilian interactions may be more important than focusing on racial prejudice as such. In any event, these are questions worthy of additional research and more careful examination.