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Report on police use of force highlights lack of figures needed to make changes

A recent study by a Harvard economics professor on the use of force by police has raised some eyebrows in one critical area, though in others it appears to confirm that police treat African-Americans more roughly than white people. The big surprise, said professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., was in his finding that the use of deadly force showed no racial bias.

Many observers have questioned that conclusion, based at least in part on the anecdotal evidence of recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. What is indisputable, though, is that the data is both incomplete and unreliable because there is no national requirement for consistent, thorough reporting of police contacts with the people they serve. What figures do exist are based on reports produced by the officers involved and they, like everyone else, are only human.

Thus, no serious effort at dealing with whatever problems exist in policing is possible because the issue is ill-defined. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. That needs to change.

Nevertheless, Fryer’s report is useful, if only that it confirms that in most routine contacts with police, African-Americans are more likely to be touched, pushed into a wall, handcuffed or pushed to the ground. Even more seriously, they are 19 percent more likely to have a weapon drawn on them, 24 percent more likely to have a weapon pointed at them and 25 percent more likely to be pepper-sprayed or have a baton used on them.

But the study found no racial bias in the use of lethal force. It wouldn’t be the first time that public perception was at odds with the facts, but Fryer emphasized that his research does not qualify as the definitive analysis of police shootings.

For one thing, he said, his project focused only on what happens after police have stopped someone, not on the likelihood of being stopped at all. Other studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely to be stopped in the first place.

A more definitive study is needed as the country spins on an axis that seems ever-more unstable. Whatever the truth is, the broad public perception, especially among African-Americans, is that police routinely treat African-Americans unfairly. It may be wrong, but perception matters. Changing it will require hard work – and evidence.

That evidence needs to come in part from broad, reliable and comparable statistics on how police interact with citizens. They need to be mandatory and routinely produced in a format that allows researchers – and the public – to see how figures from, say, Buffalo compare with those in Cleveland or Albuquerque.

That will be a big undertaking, but it is essential. The fact is that the world has changed. Police actions can be recorded on video by virtually any American with a smartphone. And human nature being what it is, instances of police misconduct will always get the lion’s share of attention, distorting the public’s understanding of the overall quality of policing.

The ability of citizens to make such recordings has changed the balance of power between police and civilians and, given what those videos have too often revealed, that’s a positive development. FBI Director James Comey has blamed video for making police hesitant about confronting suspects, but that’s a distorted view.

The problem is the conduct some videos reveal. Police need to respond affirmatively to that and, given that the overwhelming share of police are good men and women whose aim is to protect and serve their communities, they should want to make that response. It’s key to changing the conversation.

Used proactively, these videos should lead to better training and better policing, supported by the kind of statistical reporting that is now unavailable and that could temper the kind of broad public conclusions an inflammatory video can produce.

It will cost some money and require what may be uncomfortable and unwanted changes in some police departments, but that reporting will ultimately lead to better policing and greater safety for all – including cops.

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