Short Take: Cop Killings in Black, White and Read

Black lives matter. It’s a subset of all lives matter, but it’s worthy of being separated from the greater statement because of two things.

  1. Police shoot and kill black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.
  2. Police shoot and kill innocent/unarmed black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.

These are separate things, and separate problems. But as too often happens, most people fail to appreciate the nature of the problems and conflate them with a simplistic myth that’s not at all accurate. This has been made clear in the belief that prisons are full of only black and Hispanic men, while white guys walk free. Again, the problem is disproportion, not that white men aren’t arrested, convicted and imprisoned. They are, just not nearly as disproportionately as black men.

As David Bernstein at VC explains, shooting and killing too.

First, note that over a five year period, 1,262 Blacks, 887 Hispanics, and 2412 Whites were shot to death by police. In aggregate, that’s a lot of people, and we should hope (and perhaps demand) that cops can be trained to use non-lethal force more often in many situations in which they feel threatened. Police in other countries seem to manage it.

On raw numbers, white men are killed by police in greater numbers than black and Hispanic men combined. But then, the percentage of the population that’s white is greater too, and the separation of Hispanic is a perpetual curiosity since it’s not a race and could be white or black.

But there’s another point to be made here which the mob invariably fails to process. While everyone is watching police engaged in horrible abuses at the moment dealing with protesters, the likelihood of being killed by a police officer under normal circumstances is miniscule.

On the other hand, I’ve heard a great deal of rhetoric over the past week to the effect that police officers are basically just looking for black men to hunt down, and that there is a decent chance that any encounter between the police and a black man will result in the black man’s death. That is simply not borne out by the data (even if we note that some smaller number of deaths from police violence are not from shootings).

Looking just at deadly shootings, black men get arrested two million times or so each year.  Many millions more times, police have other adversarial encounters with black men, such as traffic stops, or confrontations that don’t lead to arrest. A tiny percentage of those encounters lead to deadly shootings, and in some fraction of those, the police use of force was justified by the threat faced by the officer. So the odds of an unjustified deadly shooting of a black man in a confrontation with police in any given instance is tiny.

None of this is offered to suggest any wrongful death is acceptable, regardless of race or how bad the cops are when behaving like a mob to thwart protests, riots and/or looting. They chose their job and there is no reason not to demand that every cop in every interaction conduct himself properly, lawfully and with respect toward the people he serves. That’s not negotiable.

But before you raise your voices to cry “defund police,”* at least it behooves you to know the facts and recognize that there is no epidemic of police killing people, and that they aren’t only killing black people. On the other hand, they shouldn’t be killing anyone needlessly, white or black and there is no comparison between police killing wrongfully and anything crime committed by anyone who isn’t a law enforcement officer.

*Like “Abolish Prisons” before it, the latest radical plan has a nifty name that will assure it never gains traction, even though the smarter reform voices make some sound arguments for reducing reliance on police in areas where they don’t belong, like mental health.

26 thoughts on “Short Take: Cop Killings in Black, White and Read

  1. B. McLeod

    The root of the complaint isn’t really the black lives. National Crime Victim Survey statistics maintained by the DOJ reflect that homicide is a highly intraracial activity. In terms of black mortality risk, police officers don’t really make the chart. Over 95% of black homicide victims are put down by other black people. If 5 or 10 or 16 or 30 fall in Chicago or Baltimore or New Orleans or Detroit over the course of a single weekend, it likely won’t even make the front page. Business as usual, nothing to see there, move on. The police killings, though statistically insignificant factors for black mortality, are singled out for special condemnation. It isn’t that George Floyd was somehow better or more worthy or that his life was more valuable than all the blacks killed this year by other blacks. It is the wrongness of the symbolism of the thing, because the wrong people are doing the killing. There may be some encapsulated way to accurately express the objection, but “Black lives matter” doesn’t do it.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a substantive difference between an innocent guy being killed by random criminals and being killed by cops. The former are criminals. The latter are trained state agents to whom we give a shield, a gun, massive authority, on the premise that they will only use it in accordance with law and with respect for the Constitution. There is no comparison.

      1. B. McLeod

        But of course, that substantive difference is based on who is doing the killing, not on the life or lives lost as a result. So, again, whatever the root principle of the objection may be, it is not that “black lives matter.” (Note also that in the Arbery case, the killers were not police and acted without police authority, so the issue does arise with random criminal killers, if they are white).

  2. Bob

    If you crunch the numbers Bernstein posted, for 2016 it’s a 1:10,000 ratio of shooting deaths to arrests for white+hispanic people (they’re lumped together more or less). If you’re black it’s… 1:10,000. (234 deaths / 2,263,112 arrests). To be precise, blacks are actually LESS likely than whites+hispanics to be shot and killed during an arrest, .0103% chance to .0107%. Of course these numbers don’t fully or perfectly capture the situation (you ain’t got to be shot to be killed by cops, not everyone who’s shot is arrested, etc.), but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that it’s pretty close.

    So it’s probably true that if you’re being arrested, your odds of being killed by the cops aren’t seriously affected by your race. The problem is that blacks are arrested far more often, and so they do suffer more even if police excesses are “even handed.”

    1. SHG Post author

      As others have (and will) raise, there is a question as to what numbers, population, arrest, etc., give rise to the most valid comparison. I don’t know.

      1. Bob

        As I understand it, victimization surveys mirror arrest rates as far as the perpetration of serious crimes goes. But serious crimes are a small minority of arrests, and (though it’s harder to measure), it appears that the racial disparity of committing lesser crimes is smaller and that the overall ratio of arrests to crimes to committed doesn’t correspond to the actual rates of committing crimes.

        We all know why that is—the theory that policing heavily suppresses serious crime. So the real question in my mind is whether the higher rates of serious crime justify the increased police attention toward black people. Probably room to disagree here, but higher rates of blacks committing serious crimes are the driver of disproportionate policing. Doesn’t matter whether it’s rational or not, it just is. Even if it was 100% pretext, reducing serious black crime would deprive the racist powers that be of their excuse. That’s why I’m not so quick to dismiss talking about black-on-black crime now. If you could fix that, that’d be the real “magic bullet” to fixing racial disparities in policing (among other things).

  3. Alex S.

    It’s a shame this post only generated 1 comment so far, and not a good one at that.

    It would have been nice if this movement had chosen another name. I imagine few would support defunding the police, whereas many would probably support giving them a budget cut.

    1. SHG Post author

      Don’t let the number of comments concern you. They don’t reflect the number of readers. Sometimes, people just don’t have anything useful to add.

      1. F. Lee Billy

        It’s an existential dilemma. You want to contribute, but have no way of knowing whether your intended contribution contributes one iota of a scintilla? Some of us simpley desire to be witty or funny. Hardee har har! Put that in yer smoke and pipe it.

        Postings with the most comments are often the most interesting, and not necessarily because of the content or point of view expressed, but because of the diversification and varieties of the commenters. There exist a class of regular commenters here whom we seek out. Strange but true.

    2. B. McLeod

      Remember that police forces protect black citizens too. I do not think we can presume that black citizens want police budgets or resources reduced. In Detroit, there are a few areas where the police will not patrol. Those areas have become virtual wastelands. The people who are proposing to “fix” police imperfections by getting rid of police have generally not sorted through the probable consequences.

  4. Nikki

    I’m curious why the proportionality is considered from a total population share rather than share of people committing or suspected of committing a crime. I’ve heard that though blacks are only ~13% of the population, they count for a quite high percentage of the crime. Does that reflect illegitimate arrests or is the disproportionate shooting measure not really associated with a disproportionate participation in criminal activity?

    1. Erik H

      Both are useful. I’ll illustrate by analogy to the gender gap in wages.

      [Ed. Note: No. No you won’t.]

      However, the cops DO have a lot to do with the amount that they arrest/encounter/interrogate you. If cops tossed and patted down 500 fratbros at Middlebury they might make a lot of drug arrests , and if they followed around every white CEO waiting for them to roll through a stop sign at 1mph or fail to turn on the blinker 100 feet before a turn, they’d write a lot of tickets… but they don’t. Instead, they toss and pat down black kids in the projects. So “controlling” for things like arrest records or criminal records means that you may be removing some major effects of underlying racism.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Hal

        I don’t think it does. Let me think about it for a moment… nope, it doesn’t help. Not even a little bit.

  5. Jake

    David B seems to believe differential involvement is a fact when it is a hypothesis.

    The majority of the people crying abolish this and defund that in the streets are, as you know, woefully lacking in the sophistication necessary to understand what they are shouting. The intellectuals planting those ideas in the minds of protesters are transparent about the fact that it is the opening position in a negotiation. As demonstrated in LA today, don’t be so sure it’s not having an impact.

    1. SHG Post author

      The Minneapolis city council president is also urging the dismantling of the police. Of course, it comes with a price.

      If you are a comfortable white person asking to dismantle the police I invite you to reflect: are you willing to stick with it? Will you be calling in three months to ask about garage break-ins? Are you willing to dismantle white supremacy in all systems, including a new system?

      How many people are okay with taking a burglary, a mugging, a beating or a rape for the team?

  6. Gregory J

    According to police data regarding unarmed citizens killed by police, last year there were 19 white people versus 9 black people killed yet no one sheds a tear for an unarmed white person being killed because white lives in America don’t matter. I was raised to believe and still do believe that the life of every human being is a gift from God and intensely matters. Of course the real outrage should be the growing number of innocent black babies are murdered every day in abortion clinics overwhelmingly by white physicians. Abortion is the number one killer of black lives in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abortion kills more black people than HIV, homicide, diabetes, accident, cancer, and heart disease … combined. Lastly, using the disproportionate argument runs both ways as blacks also commit a disproportionately high number of violent crimes versus the general population which would likely result in deadly police confrontations. All lives are sacred and matter.

  7. Jake

    Your question seems to ignore the second part of the Minneapolis city council plans, which is also not a secret. Nobody serious and in the position to effect change is suggesting anarchy is the solution.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you had a point to make, you would raise the “second part” and discuss it rather than refer to it but provide no useful information. Yet again, you had a chance to contribute something useful and squandered it. That said, there is no “second part” that makes this any less absurd.

  8. Info Guy

    Roland Fryer, a black (because we have to say it) Harvard economics professor performed a study seeking to quantify the number of “excess” police shootings (as an indicator of bias) of blacks vs. the frequency and nature of police interactions (i.e. taking into account crime rates) and was unable to find any evidence supporting bias or “malfeasance” as he termed it. “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.”

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