Learning to de-escalate.

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Focus on Police Shootings Obscures Larger Problem

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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A new study shows that blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as whites to "experience some form of force in interactions with police," but no more likely to experience the most "extreme use of force -- officer-involved shootings." That finding can be important to de-escalating the kind of violence that culminated with the tragedy in Dallas last week.

Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard economist, says his anger about the killings of blacks by police drove him to look into the data. The resulting paper, unsurprisingly, showed that blacks and Hispanics have more violent interactions with police -- being grabbed, pushed into a wall or onto the ground, having a gun pointed at them. The study looked at more than 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments, and found that even after correcting for various circumstances of the encounters -- such as the crime rate in the areas where they occurred -- the race effect remains. And non-whites are likely to be subjected to force even when they are compliant with police requests.

Fryer, however, was surprised to discover that lethal force is more infrequently applied to blacks and Hispanics than to whites. Using a dataset from Houston, Texas, he calculated that blacks were 23.8 percent less likely to be fired upon by police than whites. "Partitioning the data in myriad ways, we find no evidence of racial discrimination in officer-involved shootings," he wrote. 

The study has some qualifications -- it's geographically limited, and the police departments themselves provided the data, so it's possible that in other cities, where police may be more racially biased, the results wouldn't hold up. In addition, Fryer said the results came out differently when he explored the data on police violence from the point of view of civilians. But taking the analysis at face value, Fryer suggested an explanation: Police face far higher costs for the lethal use of force than for excessive non-lethal violence. There's a chance of being fired or even convicted for killing a suspect, and there's potential for public outrage and riots. Just pushing someone to the ground or hitting them with a baton is not even likely to come to light.

Many black Americans, including Professor Fryer himself, have had tense run-ins with police. It's easy to assume that violence is applied to blacks more frequently at every level, and every death confirms that gut feeling -- even if it is not borne out statistically.

The lack of reliable data won't do much to change the perception among black Americans that interactions with police are fraught with danger. It's that feeling that needs to be addressed.

Fryer is not a criminologist, but he is echoing an idea that Tom Tyler of Yale University has been writing for years. He found that the key element that ensures the legitimacy of law enforcement and makes people willing to cooperate with police is something called "procedural justice." That includes the "quality of decision-making" -- such as when the police let a suspect have his say without interruption -- and the "quality of treatment," or the respect for a person's dignity.

People don't generally cooperate with the police out of a fear of retribution, according to Tyler, but rather because their sense of "procedural justice" is satisfied. 

Based on that concept, it's easy to explain why Russia, where people perceive the police to be unfair and feel little obligation to obey officers, has a much higher crime rate than Denmark, where people report the strongest obligation to obey the police among European countries. 

Fryer's recommendation is an economist's take on Tyler's idea: "Increase the expected price of excessive force on lower level uses of force." The Harvard professor wrote:

The appealing feature of this type of policy experiment is that it does not require officers to change their behavior in extremely high-stakes environments. Many arguments about police reform fall victim to the “my life versus theirs, us versus them” mantra. Holding officers accountable for the misuse of hands or pushing individuals to the ground is not likely a life or death situation and, as such, may be more amenable to policy change.

It's much easier, however, to raise the price of using a gun -- movements such as "Black Lives Matters" do so by increasing pressure on police departments -- than to fix the problem of lower-level violence. It's a matter of cop skills as much as motivation. Karl Klockars of the University of Delaware wrote,

Force certainly need not result in serious physical or mental injury to be deemed excessive. Moreover, it need not (and usually will not) be the product of malicious or sadistic behavior. It can spring from good intentions as well as bad, mistakes and misperceptions, lack of experience, overconfidence, momentary inattention, physical and mental fatigue, experimentation, inadequate or improper training, prejudice, passion, an urge to do justice or demonstrate bravery, misplaced trust, boredom, illness, a specific incompetence, or a hundred other factors that might influence an officer to behave in a particular situation in a less than expert way. Excessive force should be defined as the use of more force than a highly skilled police officer would find necessary to use in that particular situation.

Increasing the cost of non-lethal force is not likely to fix the problem, because the "hundreds of factors" won't disappear overnight. Achieving lower levels of violence means changing how cops are trained, and perhaps the entire philosophy of how police officers obtain compliance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net