Three is a pattern, they say, and protesters in Times Square and elsewhere can cite more than three examples — Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, and John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio — to back up their claim that there is a pattern of excessive force by white law enforcement against black citizens revealing itself in America. But, compelling as these anecdotal examples may be, they are outliers amid a decade’s worth of data that indicate nothing in the way of systemic bias in encounters between law enforcement and citizens (of every color).
Among a variety of other findings, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), collected triennially since 1996, estimates the number of citizens who interact with police annually, how those interactions came about, and how citizens assess them. Because BJS conducts interviews with a sample (some 40,000 to 60,000 persons, depending on the year), then extrapolates to the larger population, the numbers are not perfect, but they do offer one reasonable indication of police contact with the American public. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, 62.9 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about one quarter of American adults, had at least one encounter, face-to-face or remote, with police. Half (49 percent) were police-initiated; traffic stops accounted for four of every ten encounters (42 percent), as did citizen requests for assistance (38.5 percent).
The unlikeliest reason (1 in 50) for encountering law enforcement was a “street stop,” in which a pedestrian is stopped by a police officer. The reasons for such a stop are more varied than for a traffic stop, which helps to explain why 24.5 percent of those involved in a street stop claimed that police did not behave “properly.” Even so, a mere 3 percent of those dissatisfied citizens filed a complaint. In raw numbers, of 1.45 million pedestrians stopped, only about 9,900 filed a complaint.
These statistics help to contextualize the cases protesters have cited. Both Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s run-ins with law enforcement could be classified as street stops; both are in the even smaller class of cases that allege “improper” police behavior; and given the legal action the families are pursuing, it is not unreasonable to categorize both among the vanishingly small minority of complaint-worthy cases.
One could consider these situations from another perspective. Of the 40 million Americans (16.9 percent) who had a face-to-face encounter with law enforcement in 2008, only 1.4 percent reported having force threatened or used against them. Three years earlier, the number was 1.6 percent, and in 2002 it was 1.5 percent. As a percentage of the population, averaged from 2002 to 2008, blacks (3.7 percent) have been slightly more likely than whites (1.2 percent) and Hispanics (2.2 percent), but the rates for each racial group have remained approximately flat.
But, considering police-public interactions more broadly, are there indications that police disproportionately initiate contact with minorities? In short, no. When it came to traffic stops in 2011, black drivers (13 percent) were stopped more frequently than white (10 percent) or Hispanic (10 percent) drivers. That is hardly a damning finding. Moreover, while blacks (7 percent) were slightly more likely than Hispanics (6 percent) or whites (5 percent) to be ticketed, they were also slightly more likely than whites to be let go with no enforcement action (2 percent versus 1 percent).
These disparities are small, and they square with citizens’ perception of police behavior: Eighty-three percent of black drivers who were stopped believed police behaved properly, compared with 87 percent of Hispanic drivers and 89 percent of white drivers. Furthermore, racial differences between citizen and officer made little difference in these perceptions. Black drivers were equally likely to believe they were stopped “legitimately” whether the officer was black (71 percent) or white (70 percent), and among black drivers who believed they were stopped legitimately, those stopped by white officers were in fact more likely to report “proper” officer conduct (94 percent) than those stopped by black officers (92 percent). The dynamic, however, reverses among drivers who believe they were not stopped for a legitimate reason: 87 percent of those stopped by a black officer reported the officer behaved properly, compared to only 58 percent of those stopped by a white officer.
Street stops present more disparate data: Seventy-seven percent of whites stopped said police behaved properly, while only 38 percent of blacks did. However, the BJS notes that the number of responses to the question in its sample was so small that those figures must be “interpret[ed] with caution,” so clearly additional information is needed. More reliable are figures about street-stop rates. As a percentage of the total population, whites, blacks, and Hispanics were all stopped at the same rates (1 percent of the respective groups in a given year).
None of this precludes the possibility of instances of racism among law-enforcement personnel. But taken as a whole, Police-Public Contact Survey data suggest that no racial group is unjustifiably targeted by law enforcement as a national matter and that black Americans by and large find little objectionable about their encounters with white police officers. There are, to be sure, isolated incidents of police malpractice. But whatever happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, and the few other cases cited by protesters, according to this collection of data, the events seem to have been statistical anomalies, not indicators of any pattern.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.