War on Drugs

Color-Conscious Drug Warriors Breed Mistrust

Two recent studies confirm anecdotal evidence of racial disparities in police treatment of drivers and pedestrians.


Last week's Democratic National Convention provided a forum for Black Lives Matter activists, and in his speech on Wednesday night President Obama said "we've got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed."

At the Republican National Convention the previous week, by contrast, the party's presidential nominee came down firmly on the side of "law and order" (a phrase he used three times), repeatedly decried violence against the police, and said nothing about violence by the police. That stance, which Donald Trump consciously copied from Richard Nixon, was consistent with the billionaire bully's authoritarian tendencies but also with a Republican tradition of blindly defending police against criticism.

Even conservatives who are generally skeptical of "big government" and rarely reluctant to criticize its representatives tend to make an exception for public employees who wear uniforms and carry guns. That soft spot for armed agents of the state is not just philosophically inconsistent; it is empirically unjustified, as two recent studies of police behavior show. While one of the studies casts doubt on the claim that cops are quicker to shoot blacks than whites, they both confirm that encounters with police are racially skewed in ways that are hard to justify—a troubling pattern that is closely correlated with the war on drugs.

In a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published this month, Harvard economist Roland Fryer analyzes information about police encounters from New York City's "stop and frisk" program, from a nationally representative survey of the general public, and from reports on incidents in which officers fired their weapons, based on records provided by law enforcement agencies in Austin, Dallas, Houston, six Florida counties and Los Angeles County. Fryer also examines a random sample of police-civilian interactions in Houston with "arrest codes in which lethal force is more likely to be justified: attempted capital murder of a public safety officer, aggravated assault on a public safety officer, resisting arrest, evading arrest and interfering in arrest."

Fryer found no evidence that Houston police officers were more likely to shoot black suspects in those situations. To the contrary, blacks were "23.8 percent less likely to be shot at by police relative to whites." Even after Fryer adjusted the data for several possibly relevant variables, including "encounter characteristics" and "type of weapon civilian was carrying," there was no evidence of racial bias in police shootings.

Looking at the records of encounters during which police discharged their weapons in Houston and the nine other jurisdictions that participated in the study, Fryer considered when the officers pulled the trigger: Was it before or after they were attacked? He found that blacks were no more likely than whites to be fired upon before attacking police.

These results are hardly the last word on the subject. Fryer notes that his sample of cities is probably not representative, especially since it was limited to jurisdictions with police departments that agreed to participate. It seems likely that departments with more troubling records would be less inclined to supply them. There is also some question about the reliability of the records themselves, since they are the self-interested accounts of cops trying to justify their own actions.

In contrast with his analysis of police shootings, Fryer found consistent and robust racial differences in the use of nonlethal force, such as grabbing a suspect, slapping him, or pushing him into a wall. Based on the New York Police Department's data, he found that blacks "are more than fifty percent more likely to have an interaction with police which involves any use of force." The difference was smaller but still statistically significant after Fryer took into account various other factors that might affect the use of force. "Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made," he writes, "blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force."

Data from the Police-Public Contact Survey, which asks people about their encounters with cops, indicate much bigger racial differences in the use of force. Blacks are more than three times as likely as whites to report that police used force against them. Noting that the NYPD data and the survey data come from two different perspectives, Fryer suggests the truth "is likely somewhere in the middle."

Since encounters with cops in New York and other cities frequently involve searches for contraband, the drug laws offer young black men many more opportunities to be manhandled by the police than they would otherwise have. In New York blacks are much more likely to be stopped than whites, and when they are stopped they are substantially more likely to be roughed up. The vast majority of these stops—nearly nine out of 10—end without an arrest or summons. As Fryer notes, the cumulative effect of such incidents, especially when no evidence of criminal activity is discovered, can be poisonous:

Due to their frequency and potential impact on minority belief formation, it is [possible] 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.

In a study published last April, University of North Carolina political scientist Frank Baumgartner and three colleagues show that the racial disparities seen when cops stop pedestrians are also apparent when they pull over drivers. Looking at 12 years of data from North Carolina, Baumgartner et al. find "dramatic disparities in the rates at which black drivers, particularly young males, are searched and arrested as compared to similarly situated whites." For example, "blacks are 200% more likely to be searched and 190% more likely to be arrested after being pulled over for a seat belt violation; 110% more likely to be searched or arrested following a stop for vehicle regulatory violations; and 60% more likely to be searched or arrested after being stopped for equipment issues."

The racial differences were especially large for discretionary searches based on consent or probable cause, as opposed to protective pat-downs or searches conducted pursuant to a warrant or after an arrest. Discretionary searches of blacks were less likely to find drugs than discretionary searches of whites, which suggests the extra suspicion blacks encounter has no rational basis. Furthermore, the racial disparities grew over the years, while the likelihood of finding drugs did not.

These differences persist after the data are adjusted for other variables that might affect the likelihood of being searched. "Controlling for why and when they were stopped, which officer pulled them over, and whether or not they had contraband in the car, young men of color are much more likely to see adverse outcomes," Baumgartner et al. write. "Minorities are much more likely to be searched and arrested than similarly situated whites, controlling for every variable that the state of North Carolina mandates to be collected when traffic stops are carried out."

The Supreme Court has facilitated searches like these by upholding pretextual stops that are ostensibly justified by a traffic violation but are actually aimed at finding evidence of criminal activity—typically illegal drugs. Given the myriad excuses cops can muster for pulling people over, that ruling lets them cast a dragnet that tends to catch a disproportionate number of dark-skinned motorists. "Drivers have a sense of when the stops are pretextual," Baumgartner et al. note, and "being subjected to these pretextual stops is humiliating, threatening, and unjustified." They add that if blacks are more likely to experience such stops, "it goes to the heart of the question of whether all Americans feel that they are part of a single nation rather than living in separate communities divided by color and subject to differing rights and burdens."

Conservatives who are inclined to dismiss the significance of disparities like these should listen to Tim Scott, one of two blacks and the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate. A couple of weeks ago, Scott told his colleagues about some of his own experiences with the special scrutiny that black men tend to receive, including seven traffic stops within a single year when he was already an elected official, exclusion from a political event to which four white companions were admitted, and demands for identification on Capitol Hill after he was elected to the Senate.

"There's absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you're following the rules and being treated like you are not," he said, quoting a former staff member who replaced his Chrysler 300 with a less fancy car after it repeatedly attracted police attention. "I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell."

Scott made it clear he was not claiming most cops are racist, saying "the vast majority of our law enforcement officers have only two things in mind: protect and serve." But it only takes a few less enlightened cops, combined with a system that allows them to act on their prejudices at no personal cost, to create what Scott called "a trust gap" between police and minority communities. "I simply ask you this," he concluded. "Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish, of another, does not mean it does not exist."

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.