As a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class immigrant, I’m hardly the person to speak to the politics of race in America. So I turned to an African-American friend, the economist Roland Fryer, whom I’ve known since we were colleagues at Harvard.
In 2016, he published a brilliant but controversial paper which argued that the police did not disproportionately use lethal violence against black people, though they were more likely to use non-lethal force against them. (A paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lent strong support to Fryer’s thesis.) He has a new, unpublished paper that looks at a perverse effect of investigations into police shootings. I asked Fryer to walk me through the argument.
“If you have a police shooting that goes viral online but isn’t investigated,” he explained, “then nothing changes — levels of police activity and crime are about the same. But if you have a viral shooting that is investigated, then police activity plummets, and crime goes up dramatically.” In just five cities – Baltimore; Chicago; Cincinnati; Ferguson, Missouri; and Riverside, California -- this led to excess homicides of almost 900 people in the subsequent 24 months, 80% them black, with an average age of 28. It's a dangerous Catch-22: You're damned if you don't investigate “viral” incidents, and in even worse shape if you do.
How does Fryer interpret the current protests? “People are fed up,” he told me. “They are frustrated by the disparities they see in educational outcomes. Frustrated by the disparities they see in criminal justice. Frustrated by racial disparities in life expectancy. We are all to blame — this happened on our watch.” And when you add to that the fact that Covid-19 disproportionately affected the black community: “Folks have had enough. People are very much on edge.”
Policing and the outcomes from tough to loose methods is endlessly debatable and not least because of the credit politicians claim for successes that may or may not be attributable to their policies.
That was one of the primary topics of discussion in the book Freakonomics where the coincidence of abortion legislation and the implied reduction in the number of unwanted children implied reduced crime figures twenty years later. A similar argument is made about the impact of removing lead from gasoline and how that improved mental health outcomes and, by extension, crime rates.
This article from livescience may also be of interest. Here is a section:
"Data on policing is notoriously terrible," said Casey Delehanty, a political scientist at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. "It's very spotty. It's unreliable and often inaccurate, and this has really precluded a lot of study and understanding and also accountability in real-time of local, state and federal police."
Even when the government does keep data, it's incomplete and often held on laughably out-of-date technology. In the summer 2019, Delehanty embarked on an effort to get raw data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Database. The email provided by the FBI for researchers to request data bounced back. The phone number for researchers led to a phone tree that automatically hung up after Delehanty picked the academic option. He finally reached a person by using the field office's media line, only to learn that the only way to get the data was by mail, on a CD (compact disk). After a few weeks of waiting, the CD arrived and Delehanty dug out a computer that still had a CD-ROM drive. The data was in an old, rarely-seen format (a fixed-width delimited text file) without the necessary file that would automatically define the data columns. It took days to define the columns by hand, Delehanty said.
The threat of punishment and incentives to lead a law abiding life are inherent in policing. However when the punishments and incentives are unequally shared it is a recipe for trouble. However, I suspect the trend towards more equal outcomes is inexorable.
Slavery did not end because society suddenly grew a conscience after millennia. Rather the Industrial Revolution made forced labour uneconomic which created the conditions for a social revolution to take hold. That trend of technological innovation revolutionising social norms and normalising permissiveness is clear.
The end of slavery, universal suffrage, sexual equality, anti-segregation, the gay pride movement and now policing reform are part of a continuum driven by the march of technology. The further the economy moves in the direction of virtual relationships, the less sway segregation on racial, language, sex or class grounds has.
The introduction of the smartphone and apps like Citizen suggest a significant disruption in policing norms is impending.Back to top