The Corner

Law & the Courts

#AllLivesMatter — Why Do Police Shoot So Many White Men?

It’s getting increasingly difficult to argue that encounters with the police are truly more dangerous for black men than anyone else. In fact, the evidence is starting to mount that white men may in fact face greater dangers than their black counterparts. Last week, I wrote a piece noting that the latest data shows that given the racial disparity in arrest rates for violent crimes, it appears that white suspects may face slightly greater danger than black suspects. Former NR colleague Robert Verbruggen looked at murder statistics and reached a similar conclusion:

Once one adjusts for murder rates, a good proxy for the most serious violent crime, whites are actually more likely to be shot by police than blacks are. The same is true if you instead adjust for rates of cop-killing. Blacks, while just 13 percent of the general population, are about 25-30 percent of those shot by police, half of murderers, and 40-45 percent of cop killers.

Why would this be the case? Verbruggen has a theory — white males have higher rates of mental illness than black or Hispanic males and commit suicide at higher rates. His theory is thus that whites are thus more likely to pursue “suicide by cop” or to engage in violent mentally ill behavior — like the hatchet-wielding man police killed yesterday in Nashville:

Over the past decade and a half, the CDC’s WONDER database puts overall suicide rates at 14.5 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic whites, 5.1 for Hispanics, and 5.2 for blacks; for serious mental illness, government survey data put rates at 4.2 percent for whites, 4.4 percent for Hispanics, and 3.4 percent for blacks. (The mental-illness survey tries to measure illness directly; it doesn’t just ask about previous diagnoses.) To some degree, police-shooting numbers might reflect these disparities — with a skew toward whites and, for mental illness but not suicide, Hispanics — rather than rates of violent crime.

He then looks at current records of police victims with a history of mental illness:

The Washington Post has some helpful new numbers, though. Reporters are tracking every police killing in the country this year, and while they don’t explicitly classify cases as suicide-by-cop, they do keep track of whether the person had a known history of mental illness. So far, about a third of whites killed by police did (93 of 287), compared with only about a sixth of blacks (23 of 143) and a fifth of Hispanics (19 of 91). The black-white gap in particular is substantial, though perhaps mental illness is more likely to go undiagnosed, or unnoted in police and media reports, among minorities.

The reporters are also tracking whether people were shot holding “toy” guns. (I’ve placed “toy” in quotation marks because they include BB and pellet guns; these are not lethal, usually, but unlike Airsoft guns they are not toys.) These cases aren’t always suicide-by-cop — see Tamir Rice and John Crawford III, both black — and there aren’t enough of them in the Post’s data to say anything with confidence. But the early numbers are also consistent with the theory: 5 percent of whites (14 people), 3 percent of Hispanics (3 people), and 2 percent of blacks (3 people) were holding these guns.

I agree with Verbruggen that the topic “deserves a lot more study.” American culture is complex, with more than 300 million people living dramatically different lives in many different subcultures. No one is denying that there are individual racist cops, and there are likely even entire departments with race problems, but as I said in my original piece, the evidence simply doesn’t support the argument that American law enforcement has declared “open season” on black men. Nor is it open season on the mentally ill. But it is safe to say that violent behavior increases the chance of a violent police response, no matter your race or your mental state.


The Latest