Current Events

Police Officers, Including HPD, Are More Likely to Use Force Against Blacks and Hispanics Than Against Whites, Study Says

In the wake of several black men's deaths at the hands of police, one question has risen to national prominence: Is someone who is black or Hispanic more likely to be shot by cops than a white person? The answer, according to a new study that used Houston Police Department arrest records in its analysis, is no.

“On the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we find no racial differences,” paper author and Harvard economist Roland Fryer wrote in the study. 

Surprised? Well, not so fast. Fryer's study, which was published as a non-peer-reviewed “working paper” by the National Bureau of Economic Research, has some crucial caveats. (The Houston Press requested an interview with Fryer but was told via email that he was unavailable.)

The study did find that blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely than whites to face some degree of force in any officer-civilian interaction.

Fryer first analyzed police use of non-lethal force using data from New York City's Stop and Frisk program, which allows police to question and search people on the street, and the Police-Public Contact Survey, a national Bureau of Justice Statistics survey that interviews Americans about their interactions with police.

“In the raw data, blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to be involved in an interaction with police in which at least a weapon is drawn than whites,” wrote Fryer, who was also the architect behind Apollo 20, a Houston Independent School District program that aimed to reform low performing schools and cost $60 million in its initial three-year run. Renamed Apollo, the final remnants of the program were cut this June from the HISD budget.

Even after adjusting for various demographic changes – such as age and gender – black and Hispanic people are still significantly more likely to deal with police force than white people, the study found.

"I'm not naive enough to stand here and say that we're perfect, that we don't come with baggage, that we don't come with bias," HPD Interim Police Chief Martha Montalvo said in a press briefing Tuesday, when asked about use of lower level police force. "But what we do as an organization and I think as the majority of the men and women in the Houston Police Department, we set those biases aside because there are policies in place and there are [sic] training.”

To determine if black and Hispanic people also had higher chances of facing deadly force, Fryer looked at records of police shootings from ten police departments across three states, and at what Fryer called “unprecedented data” on 15 years' worth of HPD arrests. His study focused on five different HPD arrest categories “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."

Using a sample of these records, Fryer sought to discover what happened in scenarios wherein police deadly force was justified, but not used. He found that Houston officers were about 20 percent less likely to fire at black suspects than at white suspects.

Fryer focused on Houston because it was the most comprehensive data set available on officer-involved shootings, he told The New York Times.

“We've always been progressive and we've partnered with other universities, not just Harvard, in terms of our practices and our policies and trying to do a better job at what we do,” Montalvo said. Later, she added, “I think the academic world and policing is the future. Has been, and then will continue to be.”

Fryer's research on lethal force contradicts the growing outcry across the country, prompted by the shootings of Castile and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. – among many others – that blacks are more likely to be killed by police than whites. The study doesn't ask whether or not that's true.

“To be clear, the empirical thought experiment here is that a police officer arrives at a scene and decides whether or not to use lethal force,” Fryer wrote. “Our estimates suggest that this decision is not correlated with the race of the suspect. This does not, however, rule out the possibility that there are important racial differences in whether or not these  police-civilian interactions occur at all.”

In other words, are people of color more likely to be stopped by police at all? Some research says yes.

Thirteen percent of black drivers reported being stopped by police in 2011, according to the Police-Public Contact Survey. (2011 is the most recent year for which data is publicly available.) In contrast, police stopped only 10 percent of white drivers. That same year, though 84 percent of white drivers felt that the police had a “legitimate reason for stopping them,” only 68 percent of black drivers thought so.

That people of color are more likely to be approached by police might explain the fact that within Houston, of the approximately 400 people that HPD officers shot at  between 2015 and 2005 – the earliest year for which data available is on the HPD online database – only about 50 were white, as the Press has already reported. Nearly everyone else was Hispanic or black.

As of press time, Black Lives Matter: Houston had not replied to the Press's request for comment.
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Carter is the Houston Press fellow. A Seattle native, she graduated from Northwestern University and also has written for Elle, Los Angeles magazine and Ms. Magazine.
Contact: Carter Sherman