Why I Changed the Way I Write about Police Shootings

People protest the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Manhattan, July 7, 2016. (Darren Ornitz/Reuters)
Here’s the truth: Most cops are good, and too many bad cops go free.

Yesterday I wrote a piece that’s gone viral — an extended denunciation of a terrible police shooting in Texas. A white officer went to black man’s apartment, apparently thinking it was her own. When she saw the man in the darkness, she claimed she thought he was a burglar. She shot him and killed him. It’s a horrifying story, and it’s not the only terrible police shooting to shock the American conscience.

Whenever I write about police shootings, I get a similar critique. New readers will Google me and find that I’ve been strongly critical of Black Lives Matter. Yet I’ve also written time and again to condemn unlawful police killings — even to the extent of suggesting that police sometimes are more trigger-happy than our soldiers deployed in war zones.

This seeming contradiction prompted a series of tweets from Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery:


Any time you take on issues of crime and punishment, you find yourself facing the same problem: How do you discuss a problem of immense complexity with enough clarity (and, yes, brevity) that people will actually read what you say? And of course not every piece can repeat your entire approach to an issue — especially when each individual case is often complicated enough to merit a series of pieces all on its own.

Let’s start with the easiest assertion: The existence of outrageous killings (such as the police shootings of Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Botham Shem Jean) is no more evidence of systemic racist targeting of black men than the existence of hoaxes (such as “hands up, don’t shoot” or the claim that Charlotte’s Keith Lamont Scott was killed while holding a book) debunks claims of comprehensive racial bias.

In other words, it’s a big country. Activists can always find individual stories to support larger claims, but the individual stories do not render the larger claims true. Since 2015 — when the Washington Post began keeping an invaluable database of police shootings — we have vastly more information than we used to possess. And that information is both troubling and reassuring.

Here’s the troubling part. Police kill far more people than we thought. The FBI had long undercounted police shootings, and it took news organizations — employing better methodology — to get more accurate information. If you survey the Post data, as of today, police have shot and killed 3,648 men, women, and children since January 1, 2015.

Yes, America is a large country. Yes, we have more crime than many other developed nations. But that is still a sad and terrible toll in lives, and it doesn’t include the many thousands of others who’ve been shot and wounded. It’s a toll so high and persistent that it raises questions about deeply rooted, systemic causes, including causes related to race, culture, law, and training.

Yet there are silver linings in those dark clouds. Shootings of unarmed men dominate headlines, but they (thankfully) represent a small slice of the whole pie. The high was 9 percent in 2015. Since then the percentage has decreased to 5 percent in 2016, 7 percent in 2017, and 5 percent (so far) in 2018. In the vast majority of cases, police were confronting armed men, and while not every shooting of an armed man is justified (just as not every shooting of an unarmed man is unjustified), it is just not the case that the police have truly declared “open season” on anyone.

Moreover, while it is very true that black men represent a disproportionate share of police-shooting victims relative to their share of the general population, it is much less clear that they represent a disproportionate share of victims relative to their share of the criminal population. A population that’s more likely to engage in violent crime is more likely to encounter the police in dangerous and fraught circumstances. (The vast majority of black men are law-abiding, but black men are still far more likely to commit crimes such as murder or armed robbery than whites.)

When controlling for the facts and circumstances of individual encounters, the picture gets more complex. For example, in a widely reported 2016 study of 1,000 shootings in ten major police departments, Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer found that police were materially more likely to use nondeadly force against black men, but “in stark contrast to nonlethal uses of force, we find that, conditional on a police interaction, there are no racial differences in officer-involved shootings.”

Here’s how the New York Times summarized the results:

[Black men and women] are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.

No one (including the author of the study) claims this is the definitive study of police violence, but note how it gives both sides of the debate food for thought. The “blue lives matter” defenders of police should engage in serious soul-searching about the evidence of bias in nonlethal force. Black Lives Matters activists engaging in “open season” rhetoric should perhaps rethink their most extreme claims.

But I’m going to make a confession. Truth be told, the way I covered this issue in 2015 and much of 2016 shed more heat than light. Here’s what I did. I looked at the riots in Ferguson, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Charlotte, the extremism of the formal Black Lives Matter organization (which referred to convicted cop-killers as “brothers” and “mama” and said its explicit goal was to “disrupt the western-prescribed nuclear family structure”), and the continued use of debunked claims, including “hands up, don’t shoot,” and I focused on these excesses largely to the exclusion of everything else.

Yes, I used all the proper “to be sure” language — there are some racist cops, not every shooting is justified, etc. — but my work in its totality minimized the vital quest for individual justice, the evidence that does exist of systematic racial bias, and I failed to seriously consider the very real problems that contribute to the sheer number of police killings in the U.S.

To put it bluntly, when I look back at my older writings, I see them as contributing more to a particular partisan narrative than to a tough, clear-eyed search for truth.

So I’ve set out to rectify that imbalance. A person can walk and chew gum at the same time. One can rightly condemn riots and radicalism while also noting that each time a bad cop walks free it damages the fabric of trust between the government and its citizens. One can rightly say that it’s not “open season” on black men — or that any given inflammatory allegation has been thoroughly debunked — while also noting that the same DOJ that refuted “hands up, don’t shoot” also found evidence of systematic police misconduct in Ferguson.

Most cops do what’s right. Many cops are extraordinarily brave. But I also think the best evidence indicates that race is more of a factor in modern policing than I wanted to believe. I also think a pro-police bias has infected our criminal-justice system — including the way juries decide cases — and that pro-police bias has helped bad cops walk free. Moreover, there are legal doctrines that need to be reformed or abolished (such as qualified immunity, but that explanation requires a whole separate piece). And there should be a culture change in the way officers are taught to perceive risk, a culture change that thoughtful veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars could help initiate.

Riots are vicious and wrong. Cop-killers are depraved. We should defend, not disrupt, the nuclear family. We should tell the truth even when the truth hurts our own side. Racism still plagues our land, and race too often plays a pernicious role in American policing. It is not “open season” on black men, yet too many bad cops go free, and too many black men die at the hands of the state. Our laws and culture grant the men in blue too much latitude and too many privileges. All of these things can be true at the same time. All of them are true at the same time. It’s the immense and monumental American challenge that we must deal with them all at once.



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