Study Suggests Lethal Police Shootings Less Likely in Houston

A Harvard study examines use of police force in 10 cities across the nation, including our own.

By Katharine Shilcutt July 12, 2016

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In the wake of a week spent reeling from the deaths of five Dallas police offers shot by a single sniper and filled with police shootings from Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge to right here in Sunnyside, where two HPD officers shot a man walking down Cullen Boulevard, waving a weapon, after he pointed his gun at them, you may be wondering where Houston falls in terms of officer-involved shootings—especially those which involve the deaths of African Americans.

An article in yesterday's New York Times, "Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings," sheds a little light on the topic, with data that suggests less use of lethal force in Houston in general. The data also offers evidence that there's less likelihood of there being an officer-involved shooting when dealing with black suspects as opposed to white suspects—data that's particularly surprising considering national statistics demonstrate that African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police than white suspects.

Harvard University economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. is the author of the study, which examined data in over 1,000 shootings in 10 big-city police departments across the nation. Fryer told the Times it was "the most surprising result of my career."

From the Times:

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 defined this group to include encounters with suspects the police subsequently charged with serious offenses like attempting to murder an officer, or evading or resisting arrest. He also considered suspects shocked with Tasers.

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. But in various models controlling for different factors and using different definitions of tense situations, Mr. Fryer found that blacks were either less likely to be shot or there was no difference between blacks and whites.

Overall, officer-involved shootings in Houston have been on the decline according to public data provided by HPD. Since 2012, when a spike of activity saw 41 total shooting incidents in the year, the number has decreased year after year: 37 in 2013, 34 in 2014, 32 in 2015, and a total of 16 so far in 2016. Of those incidents, 11 suspects died as a result of being shot in 2012, 9 died in 2013, 11 in 2014, 12 in 2015, and 4 so far this year.

Of the four suspects killed by HPD so far this year, one was killed by a SWAT officer after opening fire at a car wash on Memorial Drive, killing one man and wounding six other bystanders; two other suspects were committing armed robbery at a shopping center in North Houston when they were shot and killed by responding officers.

The fourth shooting of 2016 involved a black suspect killed by a black officer in incident described by HPD thusly: "The officer was attempting to detain a suspect who was damaging public property. The suspect charged at the officer at which time the officer attempted to use a conducted energy device to stop him but it had no effect. The suspect continued to charge at the officer causing the officer to have to shoot at the suspect."

HPD data on its officer-involved shootings is available for the prior 10 years, and includes detailed information on every incident, from the race, age and sex of the suspects and officers to reports on any and all force used leading up to the shooting. With this much to comb through, it's easy to see why Fryer and Harvard University chose to focus on Houston for their study.

"[T]he results do not mean that the general public’s perception of racism in policing is misguided," the Times noted. "Lethal uses of force are exceedingly rare. There were 1.6 million arrests in Houston in the years Mr. Fryer studied. Officers fired their weapons 507 times. What is far more common are nonlethal uses of force."

In sadly less surprising news, black men and women are treated very differently at the hands of law enforcement, the data showed, with black suspects nationwide 16 to 25 percent more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer.

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