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On Policing: Roland Fryer, William Bratton, John Murad, Scott Thomson and the American People

Summary:
This is a golden moment for police reform. Above, I have links to the four most interesting sources related to the specifics of police reform I have read or listened to in the last few weeks. First, Roland Fryer

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On Policing: Roland Fryer, William Bratton, John Murad, Scott Thomson and the American People
On Policing: Roland Fryer, William Bratton, John Murad, Scott Thomson and the American People
On Policing: Roland Fryer, William Bratton, John Murad, Scott Thomson and the American People
On Policing: Roland Fryer, William Bratton, John Murad, Scott Thomson and the American People

This is a golden moment for police reform. Above, I have links to the four most interesting sources related to the specifics of police reform I have read or listened to in the last few weeks.

First, Roland Fryer gives statistics to understand the problem. Perhaps surprisingly to some, but in what I think makes sense theoretically, the racist tilt of police interactions with civilians is much stronger at lower levels of force that receive less scrutiny than it is in shootings. Here is what Roland writes in the June 22, 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed “What the Data Say About Police”; I have added bullets to distinguish passages:

  • My research team analyzed nearly five million police encounters from New York City. We found that when police reported the incidents, they were 53% more likely to use physical force on a black civilian than a white one. In a separate, nationally representative dataset asking civilians about their experiences with police, we found the use of physical force on blacks to be 350% as likely. This is true of every level of nonlethal force, from officers putting their hands on civilians to striking them with batons. We controlled for every variable available in myriad ways. That reduced the racial disparities by 66%, but blacks were still significantly more likely to endure police force.

  • Black civilians who were recorded as compliant by police were 21% more likely to suffer police aggression than compliant whites.

  • … when we use our data to calculate the descriptive statistics used in popular databases such as the Washington Post’s, we find a higher percentage of black civilians among unarmed men killed by the police than they do. Those statistics, however, cannot address the fundamental question: When a shooting might be justified by department standards, are police more likely actually to shoot if the civilian is black? Only our data can answer this question, because it contains information on situations in which a shooting might meet departmental standards but didn’t happen. The answer appears to be no.

  • Our data come from localities in California, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Washington state and contain accounts of 1,399 police shootings at civilians between 2000 and 2015. In addition, from Houston only in those same years, we had reports describing situations in which gunfire might have been justified by department guidelines but the cops didn’t shoot. This is a key piece of data that popular online databases don’t include.

    No matter how we analyzed the data, we found no racial differences in shootings overall, in any city in particular, or in any subset of the data.

Roland isn’t as clear as he might be in the last two passages above, but he seems to be saying that “situations in which gunfire might have been justified by department guidelines” involve black civilians with more than proportional frequency, but that for each such situation, blacks are no more likely to be shot than whites.

Importantly, Roland Fryer also says the research he has been involved with suggests that federal investigations of a policy department prompted by a video of policy brutality that went viral are a blunt instrument that causes police to pull back dramatically, at great cost in life:

  • … investigations not preceded by viral incidents of deadly force, on average, reduced homicides and total felony crime. But for the five investigations that were preceded by a viral incident of deadly force, there was a stark increase in crime—893 more homicides and 33,472 more felonies than would have been expected with no investigation. The increases in crime coincide with an abrupt change in the quantity of policing activity. In Chicago alone after the killing of Laquan McDonald, the number of police-civilian interactions decreased by 90% in the month the investigation was announced.

    Importantly, in the eight cities that had a viral incident but no investigation, there was no subsequent increase in crime. Investigations are crucial, but we need to find ways of holding police accountable without sacrificing more black lives.

The Manhattan Institute article “Precision Policing: A Strategy for the Challenges of 21st Century Law Enforcement” by William Bratton and Jon Murad is well worth reading in its entirety. It has two points I found especially interesting. First, that it helps a lot to set priorities in policing that distinguish between serious offenses that need to be immediately addressed by an arrest and what are offenses that people need to be told to stop but can and should be dealt with initially by a warning. Second, historically, rage at police brutality often subsides when innocent police officers are brutality murdered by someone’s hatred of the police. An innocent civilian being killed inflames rage by civilians. An innocent policy officer being killed tamps down rage by civilians at the police.

William Galston, in the June 23, 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed “The Police Reform Americans Want” collects a remarkable set of poll results showing a majority of Americans calling for dramatic police reform. Again, with my bullets added to distinguish passages, here is what William Galston reports:

  • A ban on chokeholds and strangleholds is supported by 68% of all Americans and 52% of Republicans, according to the Kaiser poll. 

  • Requiring police to give a verbal warning, when possible, before shooting at a civilian is favored by 89% of Americans, including 83% of Republicans. 

  • More than three-quarters of Americans, and more than 6 in 10 Republicans, favor requiring states to release officers’ disciplinary records …

  • Most Americans want to create stronger incentives for police to do the right thing—and to pay a price when they don’t. A remarkable 95% would require police to intervene against, and report, the excessive use of force by fellow officers, a measure that could help tear down the “wall of silence” protecting wrongdoers from scrutiny.

  • Seventy-three percent of Americans, including 55% of Republicans, favor allowing individuals to sue police officers when they believe excessive force has been used against them. Given this consensus, legislators should be able to reach agreement on the court-created doctrine of qualified immunity, which makes it hard to hold officers accountable when they violate constitutional rights.

I won’t try to summarize the podcast “The City That Disbanded Its Police.” But it is well worth listening to. A restart involving police having to reapply for their jobs in a new police department with the old police department disbanded can be an effective way to institute new policing practices if done well. As you listen, it is useful to compare the actual changes in detailed policing practices in this Camden instance to the changes in New York City policing practices discussed in “Precision Policing: A Strategy for the Challenges of 21st Century Law Enforcement.”

Conclusion: Social science became big only with the expansion of colleges and universities after World War II. At least the half century after that, there was a large fraction of inadequate social science. In my view, the last quarter century has begun to have better percentage of decent social science. Knowledge about how to do effective and as-gentle-as-consistent-with-effective policing is one of the areas of social science that is only now beginning to come into its own. We have a long way to go, but there is hope. I hope we do a powerful round of police reform now while we can, but also include in that police reform plenty of data collection and funds for research on and dissemination of effective policing strategies as we continue to learn.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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