Monday, May 31, 2021

2020 update: Roland Fryer is wrong: There is racial bias in shootings by police

2020 update: The specific flaws of Roland Fryer's paper have now been characterized in two studies (by other scholars, not myself). Knox, Lowe, and Mummolo (2019) reanalyze Fryer's data to find it understates racial biases. Ross, Winterhalder, and McElreath (2018) do something similar through a statistical simulation.

Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard University, recently published a working paper at NBER on the topic of racial bias in police use of force and police shootings. The paper gained substantial media attention – a write-up of it became the top viewed article on the New York Times website. The most notable part of the study was its finding that there was no evidence of racial bias in police shootings, which Fryer called “the most surprising result of [his] career”. In his analysis of shootings in Houston, Texas, black and Hispanic people were no more likely (and perhaps even less likely) to be shot relative to whites.

Fryer’s analysis is highly flawed, however. It suffers from major theoretical and methodological errors, and he has communicated the results to news media in a way that is misleading. While there have long been problems with the quality of police shootings data, there is still plenty of evidence to support a pattern of systematic, racially discriminatory use of force against black people in the United States.

Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard.Credit...Erik Jacobs for The New York Times

Even if the difference in the arrest vs. shooting groups could be accounted for, Fryer tries to control for these differences using variables in police reports, such as if the suspect was described as 'violently resisting arrest'. There is reason to believe that these police reports themselves are racially biased. An investigation of people charged with assaulting a police officer in Washington, DC found that this charge was applied disproportionately towards black residents even for situations in which no assault actually occurred. 

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