By now everyone knows that police, whether consciously or subconsciously, are targeting young black men, killing them at a disproportionate rate.
But what if everyone is wrong? What if race actually has little causal effect on police shootings?
In fact, the data show just that. If we as a nation can look seriously at the evidence, we can have a much more productive conversation about what’s gone wrong and how to fix it.
The Washington Post recently ran an article about police killings nationwide in the first half of the year. That story made the same mistake Post reporters have been making for years by comparing the racial composition of those killed with the overall racial composition of the United States.
“Police have continued to shoot and kill a disproportionately large number of black males, who account for nearly a quarter of the deaths, yet are only 6 percent of the nation’s population,” the paper reported.
The Post’s unspoken assumption is that police killings should match America’s overall demographic statistics. That might sound right at first, but it is well understood in academic circles that using population as a benchmark can be dangerous, because not all people are equally likely to come into confrontation with the police. To borrow an example from Michigan State University researcher Joseph Cesario, an officer is not as likely to shoot the cashier selling him a cup of coffee as he is to shoot a citizen with an outstanding warrant he has just pulled over.
And few activities, from the important to the trivial, conform to the Census Bureau’s breakdowns of the American population. Black people, who constitute about 13 percent of Americans — the Post had to focus on men alone to get the figure down to 6 percent — are 1.4 percent of doctors, 38 percent of barbers, and 16 percent of cooks. They account for 14 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 74.4 percent of NBA players but just 8 percent of NPR newsroom employees.
The media would have Americans believe that race is the single most important and predictive element of fatal encounters between police and civilians. Yet both the basic data and less superficial analyses than the Post’s show that is not the case. With a few notable exceptions, violent criminal attacks are the best predictor of whom police might shoot in America.
Even the Post itself has noted the relevant data in the past. “In 74 percent of all fatal police shootings, the individuals had already fired shots, brandished a gun or attacked a person with a weapon or their bare hands,” the paper reported in 2015. “Another 16 percent of the shootings came after incidents that did not involve firearms or active attacks but featured other potentially dangerous threats.”
Those figures are consistent with other data. In 2015, two-thirds of unarmed people of any race killed by police had been in the process of committing violent crime or property destruction. Fourteen percent were engaged in domestic violence. Ten percent were committing a robbery, 20 percent a burglary or vandalism, and 21 percent an assault on another civilian.
More important, cops don’t usually initiate their contact with the person who is shot. Three-quarters of fatal encounters start with someone contacting police and reporting the suspect.
Further, more than half of the unarmed people killed by police suffered from mental-health issues, drug intoxication, physical disability, or some combination of them. That’s something public-health policies can address head-on.
That’s why I get so angry at the Washington Post — and other media like ProPublica and the Guardian — for conflating correlation and causation. Their comparisons might spur outrage and sell ads, but they also foment discord and distract from actionable data on police killings.
We must look to reasons other than simple racism on the part of the police, who end up holding the ball for a lot of failed systemic issues.
Had the Washington Post consumed as much digital ink reporting on mental-health and drug-policy reform as it spends on shootings, I daresay the ball would have moved farther than it has. As it stands, since the paper started seriously tracking police shootings, only Texas has enacted criminal-justice mental-health legislation.
Police are already conducting work to identify and re-train or fire the demonstrably small number of its ranks who behave inappropriately. To presume that solves society’s ills is short-sighted. We must look to reasons other than simple racism on the part of the police, who end up holding the ball for a lot of failed systemic issues. A disproportionate share of America’s violent offenders are African-American males, but not because they are black. It is because America has failed its black communities, and those of the vulnerable more generally, for decades. The best predictors of crime are broken families, living in a bad neighborhood, young mothers, and other risk factors known since the 1960s: a lack of education, nutrition, after-school activities, music, art, and other programs that create opportunity.
America cannot solve its problems in how police and citizens interact if our most trusted public watchdogs in the press keep muddying the waters with divisive, superficial analyses. To solve any problem, one must first take accurate measure of it. Good reporters will see to it that the information Americans act on is not just technically correct but also grounded in meaningful and honest analysis.