Race, Age, and Police Killings

Race, Age, and Police Killings

Last week, we reprinted a ProPublica piece analyzing police killings in detail. It made the striking claim that, on a per capita basis, black males in their late teens are killed at a rate 21 times that of their white peers.

This is a different picture from the one painted by Vox earlier this year using some of the same data. Vox found that blacks were 32 percent of those killed by police -- right in between blacks' proportion of the general population (about 13 percent) and blacks' proportion of homicide offenders whose race is known (52 percent).

The key variable is age: The ratio of blacks to whites killed by police is much higher among teens than among older adults. And so is the ratio of blacks to whites identified as homicide offenders, a decent measure of involvement in serious violent crime.

I downloaded all of the FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports (the data set used by both ProPublica and Vox) from 2007 through 2011, and pulled the ages, races, and ethnicities of those killed by police or identified as homicide offenders. (For offenders I excluded justifiable homicides, accidents, and negligence. Also, in some cases more than one offender is listed, but hunting those secondary offenders down through computer code would have been fairly elaborate, so I left them off.) I focused on those who were identified as white but not also as Hispanic, and those identified as black. The ethnicity data are spotty, so this probably still counts some Hispanics as white.

As usual, I should caution that I majored in journalism and as a result kept the analysis as simple as I could. You can see my data and R code for yourself, and please e-mail or tweet me if you have questions or comments.

Here's how the ages shake out for those killed by police:

Note that these are raw numbers; they are not adjusted for the fact that there are nearly five times more non-Hispanic whites than blacks in the U.S. So even among older Americans shot by police, blacks are disproportionately represented. But that disproportion is far greater among the young, to the point that blacks outnumber whites significantly.

The same thing is true of homicide offenders, though higher sample sizes make the data look more orderly:

Finally, here's the ratio of those killed by police to homicide offenders by age and race. If anything, the white ratio is higher:

Or, to look at the question differently, the ratio of blacks to non-Hispanic whites is .82:1 for police killings and 1.5:1 for homicides.

Two conclusions here. One, while this certainly doesn't prove police bias is irrelevant, it does call into question how important it is. And two, when it comes to the interaction between age and violence, there are very different patterns for whites and blacks. These patterns should be taken into account when we look at statistics in specific age ranges -- and they might deserve more study in themselves.

[Update: In the first paragraph, I changed "blacks" to "black males" to accurately reflect the calculation ProPublica did. Also, over at Fox News, John Lott has an interesting analysis of the data as well. He highlights some issues with the FBI's statistics, and reports that a criminologist ProPublica quoted had asked not to be quoted. ProPublica disputes what the criminologist told Lott.]

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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