Discrimination in Police Use of Force

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In recent years there has been an appreciable surge in tensions between the police and minority communities; namely, allegations of police discrimination in the use of force have arisen. Given the civil liberties at stake – including the very basic right to live – it is imperative to address these allegations using rigorous research. It should be noted that this is not an easy issue to address.

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First, there are different ways that discrimination can be defined; taste-based discrimination refers to discriminatory treatment motivated by hostility towards a certain group, while statistical discrimination refers to discriminatory outcomes motivated by factors other than bigotry (such as racial profiling and implicit bias.) While some argue that statistical discrimination is acceptable, not all agree. It is clearly difficult to come up with an answer when the question changes depending on who you ask. Moreover, this issue is difficult to tackle because it would be unethical to conduct experimental research on discriminatory use of force. Without experimental data, we cannot be as confident in our findings. That being said, valuable studies on this topic have been conducted. Given the conflicting results and limitations of these studies, however, it is difficult to conclude definitively whether or not police discriminate in their use of force.

Some evidence certainly is consistent with the idea that police use force in a discriminatory manner. For instance, Fryer (2016) analyzed Stop and Frisk data from New York City, which indicated if force was used and included information about the person stopped (including gender, age, etc.), information about the encounter (time of day, neighborhood, etc.) and information about the civilian’s behavior. Fryer found that African Americans were 54% more likely than whites to experience force.

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