Ever since the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, Americans have been bombarded with assertions that black men face a unique and dangerous threat — not from members of their own community but from the very law enforcement officers who are sworn to “serve and protect” them. Hashtags such as #DrivingWhileBlack and #WalkingWhileBlack have perpetuated a narrative that black Americans risk being gunned down by police simply because of the color of their skin. Using individual anecdotes of police misconduct and the now-discredited “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has built a case that American police are out of control.
The conservative response is clear: While no one believes the police are perfect, on the whole they tend to use force appropriately to protect their own lives and the lives of others. Moreover, racial disparities in the use of force are largely explained by racial disparities in criminality. Different American demographics commit crimes at different rates, so it stands to reason that those who commit more crimes will confront the police more often. Yes, there are rogue officers — and those rogue officers should be prosecuted — but the police are still a force for good in our society.
In response to the allegations of Black Lives Matter activists, the Washington Post launched an unprecedented, case-by-case study of police shootings. After a year of research, the data are in, and they confirm the conservative position: The police use force mainly to protect human life, the use of force against unarmed suspects is rare, and the use of force against black Americans is largely proportional to their share of the violent crime rate.
According the Post, as of December 24, American police had fatally shot 965 people in 2015. (The Guardian, in the midst of its own study, reports a slightly higher number of shootings). 564 of those killed were armed with a gun, 281 were armed with another weapon, and 90 were unarmed. In fully three-quarters of shootings, “police were under attack or defending someone who was.”
But what of race? The kinds of shootings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement — white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent “less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings.” The Post does its best to hype the racial injustice of this statistic, proclaiming that while “black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year.” But that claim is misleading on a number of counts.
The chances of an innocent black man being gunned down by racist cops are vanishingly small. And that is good news indeed.
Crime doesn’t break down on neat, proportionate demographic lines. Criminals are overwhelmingly male (police killed very few women this year, but no one argues that law enforcement is sexist), and violent criminals are disproportionately black. In fact, blacks “commit homicide at close to eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.” Even worse, “among males between the ages of 14 and 17, the interracial homicide commission gap is nearly tenfold.” In 2014, for example, while black Americans constituted only about 13 percent of the population, they represented a majority of the homicide and robbery arrests. 82 percent of all gun deaths in the black community are from homicide. For whites, 77 percent of gun deaths are suicides.
#share#Given these disturbing disparities, no rational person would expect police shootings to precisely track with demographics. Police follow crime, and they tend to operate in high-crime areas. It would be alarming if there were statistically significant racial variations in the use of force even after adjusting for crime rate, but the Post’s report doesn’t make this distinction. Even the “hugely disproportionate” ratio — “3 in 5” — of blacks and Hispanics shot to death after “exhibiting less threatening behavior” than brandishing a gun isn’t out of line with violent-crime rates.
The report does highlight areas where law-enforcement agencies could do better — improved training in handling fleeing or mentally ill suspects could save lives, for example — and while police are generally responsible in the use of force, that doesn’t mean that all use of force is lawful. There are individual racist cops, and there are departments that will close ranks behind corrupt colleagues. But the chances of an innocent black man being gunned down by racist cops are vanishingly small. And that is good news indeed.
While I am no fan of social movements built on false narratives, Black Lives Matter did inspire the Post’s valuable study — a study that, fairly read, should defuse national tensions. It won’t, however. The narrative is too strong, and too many powerful people have too much to gain by ratcheting up racial tensions. So Black Lives Matter will likely roll on, and still more black Americans will be taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies about their own country. America is a better place than they’ve been led to believe. Radical racial politics will only make it worse.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.