First, it's relatively rigorous, studying 10 major police departments in large-state California, Texas and Florida. (Full paper is here.)
It's also rigorous in that the professor, Roland G. Fryer Jr., while not a criminologist, is an economist, and thus used to crunching data.
Second, did I mention that Fryer is himself African-American?
He does, rightly, caveat his work:
Fryer emphasizes that the work is not the definitive analysis of police shootings, and that more data would be needed to understand the country as a whole. This work focused only on what happens once the police have stopped civilians, not on the risk of being stopped at all. Other research has shown that blacks are more likely to be stopped by the police.
But, it should not be rejected.
Many liberals around my age or older may remember 1996 as "the summer of black church burnings."
Except that it wasn't. That includes self-set fires; yes, black ministers in a couple of cases burned their own churches to "fire up" (pun highly intended) their own flocks.
And 2015 wasn't, either.
Things like this are why I'm a skeptical left-liberal.
Back to Fryer, the youngest black to get tenure at Harvard.
In shootings in these 10 cities involving officers, officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white. Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon. Both results undercut the idea of racial bias in police use of lethal force.
That;s followed by this:
But police shootings are only part of the picture. What about situations in which an officer might be expected to fire, but doesn’t?
To answer this, Mr. Fryer focused on one city, Houston. The Police Department there let the researchers look at reports not only for shootings but also for arrests when lethal force might have been justified. …
Mr. Fryer found that in such situations, officers in Houston were about 20 percent less likely to shoot if the suspects were black. This estimate was not precise, and firmer conclusions would require more data.
That doesn't mean there's not racism in policing. Indeed, all the other data in Fryer's information about use of force other than lethal shootings says there is. So too do differential arrest rates.
Here's the bottom line:
Mr. Fryer wonders if the divide between lethal force — where he did not find racial disparities — and nonlethal force — where he did — might be related to costs. Officers face costs, legal and psychological, when they unnecessarily fire their guns. But excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished. “No officer has ever told me that putting their hands on inner-city youth is a life-changing event,” he said.
In the abstract, he adds:
We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.
In other words, the scrutiny over firing a gun is a BIG deterrent. But without deterrents, seemingly racist actions go on with impunity.
How do we work to fix this? Body cameras will be much more important than dashcams, first. Second, federal sanction, not just state ones, for police departments having disabled or malfunctioning bodycams. Third, rotating police to new beats, along with using tools like Project Implicit and follow-ups. Fourth, as necessary, gathering more such data, then more people willing to sue, where feasible.
There's plenty of leads and work right there, on plenty of issues, and that just scratched the surface.
Update: Grits has several caveats. Assuming he's right that Fryer is working from a "rational actor" view of economics (I don't know), that itself would be second biggest issue. If he relied too much on officer self-reported behavior, that could be the biggest, but he actually addresses Grits there and says "no soap." Per my comment there, I don't think the male/female skew is an issue, though.
Grits, in a second follow, linked to this piece by guest commenter Michelle Phelps at sociologist Dan Hirschman's site. I'm not totally buying it.
Grits, in a response to comments of mine, has moderately pushed back. I've had my say, and I expect Fryer to take more flak, little follow-up to be done on his lines of research and findings, and thus, for a lot of police reform focus to look and focus too late in the police activity cycle.