In political debates about incidents of police officers shooting and killing Americans, a consistent narrative has emerged: There is an epidemic of white police officers targeting unarmed African Americans—the reason being that America’s police forces are so racially biased that they value the lives of blacks less than they value the lives of whites. Given the horrifying history of racism in the United States, this was never a far-fetched thesis. This phenomenon is at the heart of Black Lives Matter, a movement that has pushed media and politicians to consider the issue of police abuse as a matter of racial injustice.
“Black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement without accountability and without justice,” then-Texas Democratic congressman and now presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke told an audience last year. O’Rourke made the statement as part of a larger speech in support of NFL players such as Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
The definition of “frightening” is subjective, but as the Washington Post noted later, three unarmed black teenagers aged 18 and under were shot and killed by police between 2015 and 2018. During the same time period, “six teenagers and three children who were white or Hispanic—and unarmed—were fatally shot [by police].”
If you zoom out, and look at killings of African American minors outside the context of police actions, the picture is actually far more grim. “Homicide is the leading cause of death for non-Hispanic black male teenagers,” notes the Center for Disease Control, while accidents remain the top cause of death for teens from other racial backgrounds. The homicide rate in 2017 for black teens was almost 16 times higher than the rate among white teens.
Putting statistics aside, is it true that police killings of African Americans are driven by racial bias—by white police officers with a Jim-Crow mindset who view blacks as less than human? A new study by a group of American researchers offers some insight, and suggests that the conventional narrative is misleading.
Lead researcher David Johnson, psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, led a team that analyzed police shootings in America by building a database of 917 fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) from over 650 different police departments in 2015. They looked at both the race of the police officers doing the shooting and the races of the individuals killed. If America had an epidemic of white-on-black police shootings, you would expect that white police officers would be more likely to shoot African Americans. But that isn’t what they found.
Instead, they found that when the data is sorted according to the race of the involved officers, “as the percentage of black officers who shot in a FOIS increased, a person fatally shot was more likely to be black…than white. As the percentage of Hispanic officers who shot in a FOIS increased, a person fatally shot was more likely to be Hispanic…than white.” It is actually more likely for black and Hispanic citizens to be killed by black and Hispanic police officers than by white officers.
This doesn’t mean that the black and Hispanic officers are more biased against fellow black and Hispanic residents. Instead, the researchers postulate that this may be due to “simple overlap between officer and county demographics.” Police departments in areas with greater numbers of ethnic minorities tend to have a more diverse police force. Indeed, the paper notes that “when county variables were included, the relationship between office and civilian race was attenuated or eliminated….This suggests that the association between officer race and black and Hispanic disparities in FOIS largely occur because officers and civilians are drawn from the same population.”
In an interview, Johnson stressed that we shouldn’t conclude that just because racial diversity in a police force does not reduce lethal shootings doesn’t mean it has no value. “Another possibility is we might find that officer race matters more for other kinds of force, so baton use, taser use, those sorts of things,” he said. “Our data is just about shootings that resulted in fatality….What I want to be clear on, is we don’t find evidence for racial disparities, at least as tied to officer race. It’s not the case that white officers seem to be primarily responsible for these shootings. But we’re not at all trying to argue that the police are, say, free of racial bias. The data we have just don’t answer that kind of question.”
This isn’t the only research that shows that white officers aren’t more likely to shoot black citizens. Last year, a study from Rutgers University found that “white officers are no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers,” in the words of lead researcher Charles Menifield.
But what of the disproportionate number of black citizens killed by police every year? As a Vox writer has noted, in 2012, 31 percent of all people killed by police were African American, while only about 13 percent of the total American population is black. Isn’t that a sign of racial bias?
The new study disputes the use of this metric as a means to prove bias. “Using population as a benchmark makes the strong assumption that white and black civilians have equal exposure to situations that result in FOIS,” it writes. “If there are racial differences in exposure to these situations, calculations of racial disparity based on population benchmarks will be misleading.”
The researchers found that the factor that most predicted the race of a citizen fatally shot was homicide rates for those groups in particular counties. For instance, in counties where whites committed a higher percentage of homicides, victims of police shootings are 3.5 times more likely to be white; in counties where blacks commit more homicides, victims are 3.7 times more likely to be black.
This suggests that violent crime rates correlate to—and perhaps may be used to predict—fatal interactions between police and citizens. The Washington Post’s police shootings database, which serves to document every fatal police shooting in the country, provides more evidence in this regard. Of the 505 fatal police shootings cataloged in 2019 as of this writing, only 20 involved a victim who was unarmed (although 12 of the victims carried toy weapons). If these victims were being targeted for reasons unrelated to their possible identity as criminal suspects, one would not expect that 96 percent would be armed.
This isn’t to say that all police shootings are justified or unavoidable. The state should never take any life if it has any alternative to neutralizing someone who poses a threat. (I oppose capital punishment under the same principle.) But it does suggest that police are using violence largely because they find themselves in dangerous situations, not because they are acting on racial animus.
The percentage of African Americans killed every year by police is tied to the homicide rate among African Americans. I am certainly not endorsing irrational and unscientific theories about some kind of “inherent” violent attitude among African Americans: The majority of African-Americans never commit any violent crime whatsoever, and homicides in the United States are highly concentrated among a few communities with high poverty, high levels of segregation, and inadequate policing (all of which are, of course, indirectly or even directly related to the country’s history of racism). Some prosperous African American communities, like Prince George’s County in Maryland, are relatively safe and see little of both common homicide and police brutality compared to, say, West Baltimore. And we shouldn’t forget that around half of the people killed every year by police are white, and that Johnson’s study found the same relationship between homicide rates and police shootings for whites as it did for blacks.
But we should recognize that policies such as increasing the racial diversity of our police forces won’t accomplish very much if non-white police officers are just as likely to use deadly force. Implicit bias training won’t stop police shootings if they are mostly occurring in dangerous situations in which the victim is armed and connected to some form of crime. Instead, a race-neutral approach may be the best way to lower the number of victims of police shootings.
Some parts of this approach are by now well-known. More and more police departments are being taught to de-escalate tense situations, so police can verbally calm down violent criminals as an alternative to using force.
But so long as parts of America have so much violent crime, police will inevitably respond with lethal force. We can’t keep writing articles noting that Norway’s police are far less lethal than America’s without noting that America has more guns than people and that there were a total of 25 murders in Norway in all of 2017. The city of Chicago, which has around half the population of Norway, on the other hand, lost 650 people to homicide the same year. It stands to reason that Norway’s police simply don’t have to deal with the same social problems and extreme rates of violence that Chicago’s do, so of course they’ll be using less force, and using it less often.
Progressives are quick to (correctly) note that the roots of crime are socially and culturally constructed. But they are more reluctant to accept the reality that one reason for the prevalence of police brutality may be that police are operating in brutal environments. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among police officers are much higher than among the general population; around one in four police officers has suicidal thoughts.
In the New Yorker profile of Darren Wilson—the police officer who killed the African American teenager Michael Brown in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, setting off the Black Lives Matter movement—what struck me the most was how much violence Wilson had encountered before he ever met Brown. At one stop, he was met with the bodies of two dead women and a two-year-old child covered in blood crawling between them. It is possible that the anti-social or violent behavior by both common criminals and the police is influenced by the environments they live and work in as well.
In other words: If we want to reduce police shootings, we have to reduce violent crime. “The strongest implication from our data is if we can reduce those crime rates, we are going to decrease the number of people who are fatally shot by police,” Johnson said.
There is no silver bullet for how to do so, but we do know of strategies that have worked in the past—ranging from reducing lead exposure, to reducing economic inequality, to increasing police levels (and training), to community activism and interventions based on changing the norms around violence in an area.
A recent study published in the journal Demography found that 17 percent of the reduction in the life expectancy gap between white and black men could be attributed to the reduction in homicides that occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s. For all of their righteous criticism of politicians such as Bill Clinton and Joe Biden—the architects of the ’90s crime-reduction policy in the United States—Black Lives Matter activists are unlikely to admit that reducing violent crime has saved, and would continue to save, orders of magnitude more black lives than any number of police-focused reforms (and the lives of countless others).
Four years ago, the national media and liberal activists converged on the city of Baltimore, Maryland, following the shocking and unconscionable death of Freddie Gray, a man who died in police custody in 2015. Intense protests and riots occurred in the aftermath, and the city engaged in a consent decree with the Department of Justice to reform itself. The government’s investigations did indeed find corrupt and unconstitutional practices by some of the city’s police force.
But as Baltimore engaged in much-needed reforms to prevent police brutality and heal relations with the citizenry, it also effectively de-policed much of the city. There were 39,654 arrests in Baltimore in 2014, compared to 25,820 arrests in 2016, while homicides increased from 211 to 318 in that period. By November 2017, gun arrests were down 67 percent from the previous year.
Reverend Kinji Scott, a community activist in the city, told me last year that he blames this de-policing for the spike in homicides. “We saw the police department arrest less during a period of high crime,” he said. “So what happened is you have a community of emboldened criminals.” The issue is personal for Scott: He lost a cousin to murder in Chicago, and his brother was murdered in St. Louis. In all three cities, the homicide clearance rate—the proportion of cases in which police are able to charge someone for a crime—is abysmal. Baltimore’s clearance rate in 2018 was 43 percent; Chicago’s police are solving fewer than 1 in 6 murders. It would be nice to see liberal activists expressing as much concern about these legions of lost lives as those few taken by police.
According to the Washington Post’s police-shooting database, 223 African Americans were killed in police-involved shootings in 2017. Each of those deaths is a tragedy, even if police had no choice in many or most of these instances. Every one of us carries a precious soul from the moment of our birth to the instant of our death, and we should prioritize saving lives to such an extent that we shouldn’t rest until the number is zero—for African Americans and everyone else. But that same year, we saw 7,851 black victims of homicide, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. That’s a 35-to-1 ratio of killings between the two tallies. Does it make sense that our outrage be guided by the identity of the shooter—whether it’s the color of his skin, or the presence of a police uniform?
There’s some good news out there, too. The New York Police Department shot 341 people in 1971 and just 19 in 2017. The city is much safer than it was then. In 1972, there were 1,691 murders in the city while in 2018 there were only 289. More sophisticated training and technology probably explain some of the decline in police shootings, but a much less violent ecosystem overall probably explains the rest. That should be the goal for the whole country—even if the dream of turning the United States into a place that’s as peaceful as Norway might never be realized.
Zaid Jilani, a journalist, is currently on fellowship, studying political and social polarization at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter @ZaidJilani.
Featured image: Protest against police brutality, Anaheim, California, 2012.