Law & the Courts

Are Encounters with the Police Really More Dangerous for Black Men?

Police make an arrest during Ferguson protests in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

One of the difficulties in reacting rationally to the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the fierce conviction borne of personal experience. The Internet is now full of young activists telling their stories of #DrivingWhileBlack — stories that often feature some combination of a belligerent police officer, a defiant citizen, and the deeply held belief that white people like me enjoy a privileged interaction with police, one that insulates us from the consequences of our own mistakes. These personal stories function like a Rorschach test: The way in which they’re received is dictated entirely by each reader’s ideological leanings.

Here’s my own story, which I’ve told before. My senior year in college, I took a spring-break road trip from Nashville to the Colorado Rockies with two of my best friends. On the way home, I was driving my 1986 Chevy Nova at 3:00 a.m. in downtown Kansas City when I changed lanes without signaling. Immediately, I saw the blue lights behind me. I looked for a place to pull over, but since I was on a bridge, there was no shoulder. So I exited the interstate and pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned gas station.

Astute readers will immediately spot my mistake. And so did the police officer. I rolled down the window to see the cop with his gun out — pointed straight at my head — with his finger on the trigger. He screamed at me to get out of the car with my hands up. I did everything he asked, too dumbfounded to speak. He conducted a quick search of the car (which was jammed with backpacks and camping gear) and found a large knife we’d used on the trail. He threw it on the ground next to the car, then threw me up against his squad car. He frisked me thoroughly (and painfully) and put me in the back of the car, threatening to arrest me for carrying a concealed weapon. The entire time he was yelling at me for almost hitting his car when I changed lanes, for not pulling over correctly, and for leading him into a possible “ambush.” He said he’d been shot at earlier in the week, and he was obviously furious.

After several agonizing minutes, featuring calls back to the station and background checks (my record was clean, and the car full of backpacks made it obvious I was telling him the truth about our camping trip), he let me go with a traffic citation, and I breathed an immense sigh of relief.

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How do we interpret this story? To some #BlackLivesMatter activists, it’s evidence of the white privilege inherent in the system. If I’d been black, I’d have been arrested, beaten to within an inch of my life, or shot dead on the road the instant the cop found my knife. Dissenters would say that cops always react strongly when a citizen introduces an unusual variable into otherwise routine interactions, and they can tell their own stories of fraught encounters with the police. I pulled off the interstate into a dark parking lot. Others run away. Still others refuse to comply with police orders or actively resist. Every unexpected variable increases tension and increases the chance of violent confrontations and sometimes-fatal mistakes.

Thus, as persuasive tools, anecdotes are nearly useless. Even when the stories demonstrate that individual police can be rude or even needlessly violent, everyone already understands that police forces aren’t perfect and that corruption or incompetence exists to some degree in every human endeavor.

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When do the anecdotes start to turn into meaningful data? The Guardian is trying to answer that question. FBI data on police shootings are notoriously unreliable, so the British newspaper decided to comb through all available records to determine exactly how many people are killed by police each year — sorted by variables including race, gender, age, and whether the deceased were armed or unarmed. The results so far for 2015 show much higher numbers of police killings than previous FBI reports. They also, at first glance, seem to prove the #BlackLivesMatter thesis that police target black men.

As of July 27, the Guardian claims, American police have killed 657 people in 2015. The large majority, 492, were armed. Some 316 victims were white, 172 black, and 96 Hispanic. (The rest were of other or unknown ethnicities.) Whites constitute a majority of the population, however, and police kill black Americans at a greater rate than whites — with 4.12 black victims per million versus 1.59 white victims per million.

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So case closed, right? Not so fast. Comparing police shootings by race with crime statistics by race tells an entirely different story: It may in fact be the case that white Americans are ever-so-slightly more likely than blacks to die in any given encounter with a police officer. After all, blacks commit homicide at eight times the combined white/Hispanic rate, and, despite their constituting roughly 13 percent of the population, represent a majority of homicide and robbery arrests. Indeed, the disproportionate share of arrests exists across all categories of violent crime — at a rate that often exceeds the racial difference in police shootings. Thus, blacks are seriously overrepresented in the most dangerous police encounters of all — encounters with violent suspects.

#related#These statistics can’t tell whether any individual cop is corrupt or any individual shooting is lawful — indeed, police officers do sometimes commit murder, and some police departments are better than others. But they certainly undermine the notion that police encounters (especially with violent criminals) are more dangerous for blacks than whites. In fact, the advice on dealing with police that conscientious black parents give their black sons is the same advice that white parents give — be courteous, do what the police officer says, don’t run or do anything unexpected, deal with abusive actions later rather than trying to seek justice on the scene. It’s just sheer fiction that white men enjoy some sort of shield of immunity, engaging in disrespect and defiance at will. After all, police kill white men almost twice per day.

Among the sad byproducts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the seemingly intentional effort to strike ever-greater fear in the hearts of black parents. In the hierarchy of mortal threats facing young black men, police violence ranks far, far below deadly violence perpetrated by other young black men. Yet the movement is already making its presence felt in the Democratic presidential primary, and looks set to dominate public discourse through the 2016 election. That’s a shame, because in the battle of ideas, intensity is no substitute for accuracy, and the accurate news is actually good news: It is not “open season” on black males in the U.S.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.