Police Violence: Response to Conor Friedersdorf

Police Violence: Response to Conor Friedersdorf

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic recently wrote that blacks are disproportionately victims of "deadly abuses and incompetence" by police. In response, a reader wrote a letter citing (among other sources) my work showing that, in the aggregate data, blacks are not killed by police more than you would expect given rates of serious violent crime. Friedersdorf, in turn, replied to the letter.

My posts were a response to thinking along the lines of, "Blacks are a higher percentage of police-shooting victims than of the general population; therefore, police are racist." This is an incredibly grave charge, as it blames police bias for something like 200 black deaths a year. From my very first post on the subject I conceded that some level of bias may exist without showing up in the overall data, and Friedersdorf argues that in fact it does. He deserves a response.

Here's one key argument:

It's telling, in my view, that racial disparities in police killings seem to exist not just for the total number people killed, but also the subcategory of unarmed people killed by police. Consider 2015. The Washington Post reports that police have killed 60 unarmed people so far this year — and that 40 percent of them were black men, "even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population ... black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed."

Not all shootings of unarmed people are unjustified.

Still, it would seem difficult to explain away the fact that unarmed black men are killed at 7 times the rate of unarmed white men by pointing to higher violent crime rates.

I disagree. Blacks — the "men" is irrelevant; 100 percent of the unarmed blacks killed by police this year were male, and human violence in general is overwhelmingly male — are roughly 40-45 percent of cop killers and half of known murderers. It's plausible that they are 40 percent of the unarmed people who put police officers in peril as well.

He continues:

And the difficulty is underscored by recalling specific cases. Freddie Gray was not a violent criminal. He was stopped illegally by Baltimore police. And he was killed while handcuffed and in custody, not in a violent altercation. Officer Michael Slager shot an unarmed black motorist in the back as he ran away during a routine traffic stop for a non-functioning brake light. Tamir Rice, a black child in a park with a toy gun, was killed the instant police arrived on the scene. Eric Garner was killed in a choke-hold after being caught selling loose cigarettes. Ray Tensing is facing murder charges for shooting an unarmed black motorist during a traffic stop. Those black individuals shouldn't have been more likely to be killed by police while unarmed because other black individuals are committing violent crimes — they had a Constitutional right and moral claim to be treated as individuals.

Counting individual cases, rather than looking at overall statistics that include indisputably justified police killings, is a very promising approach. It zooms in on the problem we're concerned about, rather than trying to find that problem hiding amongst much broader patterns. It may well turn out that unjustified police violence is disproportionately directed at blacks — but we need much better information before concluding this. I think we'll get that information over the years as body cameras are rolled out and we can more comprehensively identify wrongful killings. For now, as they say, the plural of "anecdote" is not "data," especially when the anecdotes are hand-selected to prove a point.

There's another important statistical issue here. With due respect to the folks at Campaign Zero, I don't think we'll ever get to zero police killings, or even to zero unjustified police killings. And further, even when it comes to unjustified killings specifically, I'm not sure we can expect an even racial breakdown as Friedersdorf claims, even if no police officer in the whole country has any racial bias. 

Police go where the crime is, so for the foreseeable future they will be disproportionately in black neighborhoods. Blacks themselves don't want to see their police presence cut. Further, even some of the anecdotes Friedersdorf cites involve police confronting people who not only had committed crimes, but also were resisting arrest. So if, as seems likely, a lot of unjustified police violence amounts to horrible decisions made in the heat of the moment — Tensing even had a body camera, so it's hard to say he murdered the man in cold blood thinking he could get away with it — populations with higher crime rates will bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Racial disparities are especially pronounced when it comes to serious violence, but they exist for many other crimes as well.

This is important because, while disparate impact and intentional discrimination may be equally harmful — in both cases people are dead who should not be, and the dead are disproportionately black — they have different solutions. Perhaps, in many cases, the issue isn't race specifically, but rather training officers properly and identifying people who should not be officers at all before they kill someone.

One final note: Friedersdorf mentions mental illness, so he might be interested in my argument that "suicide-by-cop" is an underappreciated factor in police shootings, one that could upend the way we look at the data on race. In fact, a higher percentage of whites than blacks shot by cops seem to have a history of mental illness. As with nearly every aspect of police violence, though, this is an area that needs better data before we can be certain.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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