By James D. Agresti
January 5, 2015
In the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many people are accusing the police of rampant racism and callous disregard for the lives of African Americans. Most of these claims have been made by individuals who offer no objective evidence to support them, but some people have attempted to provide a factual basis for their accusations.
A prime example are the members of the New York Times editorial board, who wrote that a “grim report” by ProPublica shows “that young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk — 21 times greater — of being shot dead by police than young white men. These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.”
Unlike the Times editorialists, ProPublica emphasized that these statistics are based on data that “is terribly incomplete,” but even if it is roughly correct, this by no means shows that many police officers consider black men to be subhuman and disposable. As explained by ProPublica:
Many have pointed to our reporting as proof of police bias. That overstates our case; ProPublica found evidence of a disparity in the risks faced by young black and white men. This does not prove that police officers target any age or racial group – the data is far too limited to point to a cause for the disparity.
The unsupported assumption of the Times editors is that the disparity is primarily the result of racism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary detailed below. Without scrutinizing the facts of each case where the police killed someone, one cannot conclusively determine which of these killings were preventable. However, police are less likely to kill black people than others relative to the rates at which people of different races present a threat of murder.
People of African descent comprise 14.2% of the U.S. population, but in 2013 they were 54% of 10,020 murder offenders in cases where the races of the perpetrators were known and reported. This 54% figure is almost certainly lower than reality, because murders involving minority victims and offenders are far less likely to be solved, and the vast majority of murders are committed by people of the same race as their victims.
In comparison to the 54% of reported murder offenders who are black, 33% of 2,876 people killed by police from 2003-2009 in which the races of the deceased were reported were black. This data comes from a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which notes that arrest-related deaths are “under-reported” and are “more representative of the nature of arrest-related deaths than the volume at which they occur.” It is the nature of these deaths that is relevant in this context, and thus, like the data from ProPublica, it sheds significant light on this issue.
In sum, black people represent 14% of the U.S. population, at least 54% of murder offenders, and roughly 33% of the people killed by police. These data indicate that relative to the murder threat posed by people of different races, police are less likely to kill black people than others. Nonetheless, the editorial board of the Times fueled hatred against police officers by accusing “many” of them of being cold-blooded racists who consider black men to be “not quite human” and “expendable.”
Of course, none of these facts excuse even a single unjustified killing by police. They do, however beg the question of why some people are protesting police with signs that say “black lives matter,” while many of the same people have been silent as more than 6,000 black people are murdered every year and a third of the perpetrators are never brought to justice.
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