by Jeffrey James Higgins
Published June 26, 2020
Stop the Lying
Anti-police rhetoric is spreading across the country faster than the coronavirus, because disinformation about racist police shootings fuels its transmission.
Last month, the horrific murder of George Floyd ignited protests across the country, and despite the involved officers being charged and most Americans agreeing racism and police brutality are wrong, public outrage soon expanded to condemn all police. The shootings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks have become symbols of racist police killings, regardless of the facts. The false narrative surrounding police shootings has caused law enforcement officers to be demonized, assaulted, and murdered.
The data is clear: There is no epidemic of racist police officers shooting and killing black Americans.
While every life is valuable, the number of blacks unjustifiably shot and killed by police is microscopic. Numerous scientific studies have proven that when behavioral, demographic, and other contextual factors are controlled, the racial disparity in police shootings disappears. Despite these facts, politicians, activists, and the media continue to misrepresent the facts.
It’s time to stop the lying and set the record straight.
It’s rare for police to kill anyone. A black man is more likely to be killed by lightning than unjustifiably killed by a police officer. In 2019, police shot and killed 1,003 people in the US, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Of those, 250 were black and 405 white. Police shot and killed 55 unarmed suspects, including 25 whites and 14 blacks.
Shooting an unarmed suspect can be justified if a suspect makes a furtive movement, attacks an officer, or tries to take the officer’s firearm. Of the 14 incidents of unarmed black men shot and killed by police in 2019, several involved high-speed car chases, fights with officers, or had weapons recovered at the scene. Every shooting needs to be evaluated on its own merits, and only one of the involved officers has been charged with murder, but for this analysis, assume all involved excessive use of force.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR), there were 686,665 sworn police officers in the United States in 2018. That’s one unarmed black male shot and killed for every 49,047 sworn police officers.
In 2018, police made 10,310,960 arrests, according to the FBI, and the race was known for 5.6 million offenders. Of them, 1,548,690 (27.4%) were black. There were 229 black males shot and killed by police that year, according to the Washington Post, for a ratio of one out of every 6,762 black offenders. The ratio of unarmed black men shot and killed (23) in 2018 was one out of 67,334 black men arrested.
In 2015, about 53.5 million people had at least one contact with police, and 95% of those contacts involved traffic stops, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). According to a BJS special report, 91% of whites and 85% of blacks contacted by police during traffic stops said police behaved properly. Of citizens contacted during street stops, 81% said police acted properly. Only 2% of all citizens contacted by police experienced force, or the threat of force.
After the Ahmoud Arbery murder in Georgia, LeBron James tweeted:
“We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes!”
That sentiment has been repeated during the recent protests, but does it reflect reality?
According to the US census, in July 2019, an estimated 328,239,523 people resided in the US. Blacks comprise 13.4%, or 43,984,096 people. That means police shot and killed one unarmed black male out of every 3,141,721 black Americans. Does that sound like an epidemic of police murders?
The numbers of unarmed blacks shot and killed by police are so low, most Americans recognize their names. Comparatively, every year police kill a larger number of unarmed whites, but almost no one knows their names. Why does the media ignore these shootings?
It’s true the relative percentage of blacks killed is higher than with whites, but the press does not cover the shooting of whites to the same extent, probably because it contradicts the narrative of racist police. Shootings later determined to be justified are still trumpeted as proof of racism—as with the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Even in bad shootings, there is often scant evidence of racism, because it’s difficult to determine internal motivations. It’s bad science to assume racism based solely on the disparate numbers between racial populations.
For example, a study of police shootings in 2015 showed suicidal whites were more likely to be killed by police. Are police racists against whites? Of course not. Of the 250 blacks shot and killed by police in 2019, only six were female.Can one assume misandry is to blame for the gender disparity? Other variables need to be considered when determining causation, such as the fact men commit most violent crime.
The media correctly report descriptive statistics showing the disparity between the percentages of blacks and whites shot and killed by police, but journalists err in their statistical analysis by ignoring confounding variables and assuming causation.
A 2019 National Academy of Sciences study found that “people of color face a higher likelihood of being killed by police than do white men and women, that risk peaks in young adulthood, and that men of color face a nontrivial lifetime risk of being killed by police.” The study concluded that blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, but the study’s findings do not tell the whole story, because it fails to account for confounding variables.
If any group engages in more violent crime, they will have more contact with police and a higher chance of being shot, and the black population in the US has a higher crime rate than the white population. It’s important to note than metadata for populations does not apply to individuals within that group and can only analyze populations as a whole.
According to the FBI UCR, there were 1,186,742 incidents of violent crime in 2018, and of them, 14,123 were homicide victims. Blacks comprised 54.9% of all homicide offenders, compared to 42.4% for whites. Blacks are 13.4% of the US population, yet they accounted for more than half of all homicides.
According to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, 61.5% of all offenders were male, and according to the FBI UCR for 2018, 87.7% of murder offenders were male. That means approximately 6% (black males) of the population committed approximately half of the murders.
Homicide is not the only crime where the black population offends at higher rates. According to the FBI UCR, of 7,710,00 arrests reported in 2018, blacks comprised 27.4%. Approximately 28.6% of people arrested for rape were black, 54.2% of robbery arrests, 33.7% of aggravated assault arrests, 29.4% of burglary arrests, and 30% of arrests for larceny-theft. Black arrest rates for violent crimes are also correlated with victim descriptions of offender race. Higher crime rates within the black population increases contact with police and therefore the chance of police shootings within that community.
Median age is another confounding variable. Young men commit the vast majority of crimes. According to the FBI UR, in 2018, people under the age of 25 accounted for large percentages of those arrested for murder (42.8%), rape (38.6%), robbery (53%), and aggravated assault (27.8). The black population in the US is younger than the white population.
According to Pew Research, in 2018, the median age for whites was 44 and the median age for blacks was 34. The most common age (mode) for whites was 58 and 27 for blacks. Poverty is also correlated with crime. In 2018, 11.8% of US was in poverty, according to the US Census. The real median household income in 2018 was $63,179, but $70,642 for whites and $41,361 for blacks.
Another variable to consider when assessing racial disparities is single-parent homes. In 2017, 65% of black households had a single parent, compared to 24% of white households. The more interaction a child has with a father, the less likely they are to commit a crime, according to the Minnesota Psychological Association. Children from single-parent homes are four times more likely to be in poverty and three times more likely to end up in jail by age 30.
One must also consider urban versus rural populations. Cities have significantly more crime than rural areas, with urban crime rates as much as 74% higher. According to Black Demographics, relying on 2013-2017 US Census data, most cities have black populations higher than 13.4%. Considering police concentrate in high-crime areas, the higher percentage of blacks living there may affect the rate of blacks shot by police.
While blacks commit the majority of homicides, they are also the group with the highest percentage of homicide victims. According to the 2018 FBI UCR, there were 6,460 known-race homicide victims, of which 3,315 were white and 2,925 were black. Whites were 51% of known race homicide victims and 76.5% of the total US population, while blacks were 45% of known race homicide victims, but only 13.4% of the US. That means the homicide rate for blacks was 3.35 times their percentage of the US population, making them over five times as likely to be homicide victims.
And who is mostly responsible for murdering these high percentages of blacks? It’s not police—it’s other blacks. Most crime is intraracial, where both victims and offenders share the same race, but when violent crime is interracial, blacks commit a far higher percentage than whites. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics 2018 study, 15.3% of crimes against whites were committed by blacks for a total of 547,948 crimes. In contrast, whites committed 10.6% of crimes against blacks for a total of 59,777 crimes.
Despite being 13.4% of the population, blacks committed nine times more interracial crimes against whites than whites committed against blacks. If racism is the cause of interracial violence, white cops are not the problem.
A 2019 research article, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailed the findings of a study by David J. Johnson. The study analyzed fatal police shootings in 2015 and confirmed blacks, which were 12% of the population, accounted for 26% of those shot and killed by police. But when violent crime was used as a benchmark, the anti-black disparity disappeared. The study found officers were more likely to shoot suspects of the same race, and more importantly, the number of police shootings could be predicted by race-specific violent crime rates.
The Collaborative Reform Initiative studied deadly force used by the Philadelphia Police Department from 2007 through 2013. The study determined 59% of officers involved in shootings were white and 34% were black. In these shootings, 80% of suspects were black, and the majority were young males. Unarmed suspects were 15.4% of all people shot by police, but 25% of white suspects and 15.8% of black suspects were unarmed.
The study found the shooting of unarmed suspects was most often caused by threat perception failures or physical altercations. With black suspects, white officers had a 6.8% threat perception failure and the rate for black officers was 11.6%. The study found no significant threat perception failures among different suspect racial groups.
A 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research study by Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer, analyzed racial differences in police use of force. It concluded that blacks and Hispanics were 50% more likely to experience non-lethal police use of force, but when controlling for contextual factors, the study found no racial disparity in the use of deadly force in police shootings. The study also debunked prior claims that implicit bias affected shooting decisions.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, by Dr. Lois James, used laboratory simulations to test racial and ethnic bias in police shootings. Previous research had suggested blacks were more likely to be perceived as having weapons. This study flashed images of people and objects, and test subjects were required to decide whether to shoot. Out of 827 scenarios, 588 of which required deadly force, unarmed subjects were shot 47 times. Unarmed white suspects were shot 46 times and unarmed blacks were shot only once. Subjects also waited longer to shoot black suspects. The study found that “subconscious associations between race and threat exhibited by participants are not linked to shooting behavior.”
The myth of racist police shootings has many unintended outcomes. Hundreds of police officers have been injured or and killed, and many more have expressed their desire to quit. This negative environment will likely lower the number of applicants to police academies and degrade the quality of applicants, which could result in higher levels of police criminality. Police may become less proactive, creating the “Ferguson effect.” A 2020 study questioned this theory, but that was before the recent protests and riots. If the Ferguson effect is sustained, it will disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods.
The portrayal of police as racist thugs has increased racial tensions and distrust. The breakdown of the rule of law may lead to vigilantism, and if civil unrest continues, businesses and residents may leave cities. Rioting in the 1960s is largely believed to have caused the phenomenon known as “white flight” from urban areas. The Kerner Commission Report, which analyzed urban riots from 1965 to 1968, warned of racial polarization. If businesses abandon urban areas, the resulting economic hardship will disproportionally damage minority communities.
The widely believed lies about racist police have also fueled an effort to defund or abolish police departments, despite only 16% of Americans agreeing with cutting financial support for police. Many politicians define the “defund movement” as reallocating police funding to other social services, but US Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted about disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested “decarceration & prison abolishment.” The Minneapolis City Council has vowed to dismantle and abolish the city police.
Everyone agrees excessive use of force should be eliminated On June 6, 2020, Congress introduced H.R. 7120– Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to deal with police misconduct. The bill lowers the standard to convict police officers for misconduct, limits qualified immunity against civil action, provides addition tools to investigate patterns of discrimination, creates a national misconduct registry, and creates a framework to prohibit racial profiling at all levels.
Other constructive solutions include: Improving officer training and standards, increasing transparency and the timely release of information, enhancing shooting investigations, reevaluating carotid restraint standards, and studying the effects of both public sector unions and civilian review boards. Since each shooting must be evaluated on its own merits, the mandatory use of body cameras could provide valuable evidence.
The media and protesters claim the violent actions of a few rioters do not represent most of the peaceful group, yet they argue the actions of one bad officer represents the whole. This faulty reasoning needs to stop. People need to forgo emotional arguments for rational analysis, stop confusing correlation with causation, and understand the impact of confounding variables.
For too long, the demonstrably false narrative about racially motivated police shootings has been propagated by politicians, activist groups, the media, and Hollywood. The data proves when contextual variables are considered, the racial disparity in police shootings disappears. It’s time for the public to overcome their cognitive dissonance and discover the truth.
Jeffrey James Higgins is a retired DEA supervisory special agent and former Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputy, with 25 years of law enforcement experience. He has a Master of Science in Criminal Justice with a focus on research. Read his articles at http://JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.