The Corner

Politics & Policy

Statistics on Officer-Involved Shootings Do Not End the Debate about Bias in Policing

Demonstrators hold up signs during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2020. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Almost every argument I have seen against the idea that there is a systemic problem with policing and racial bias in this country cites statistics on police shootings and crime rates by race.

But the limitations of the shooting statistics become palpable — like a man’s neck — when we reflect that they are blind to the very case we are all talking about: George Floyd was not shot. Nor was Eric Garner.

As for crime rates by race: There is at least some evidence of biased policing that withstands mention of them. The Ferguson report presented such evidence, as I wrote at the time, and the only ways around that evidence were speculative rather than being supported by evidence themselves. (Not all of the report’s evidence was of this type; other details were susceptible to challenges based on crime rates by race.)

Perhaps you find it counterintuitive that police, on the whole, would be biased as to lesser uses of force but unbiased as to shootings. I find it all too intuitive, in much the way that you might yell more at a person if you expected to get punished for hitting him.

I don’t want to make too much of all that, either the report itself (and any similar evidence) or my intuitions. One should refrain from drawing sweeping national conclusions based on handfuls of local detail. But equally one should not trivialize the concerns of one’s fellow citizens by citing evidence that does not allay those concerns. I do not believe that large numbers of police officers are roaming the country hoping to shoot black and other minority suspects. But if the worry is more general and more subtle — about racially disparate policing decisions, perhaps made without full conscious awareness* of bias — then it has not been adequately addressed. (*Another line of argument I’ve seen is that racism can only be conscious, but I find this naive. We all have motives and desires of which we are not fully aware, even though we would all rightly bridle at someone’s denouncing us for them as if we had been.)

A further thing to keep in mind is that the concerns are not limited to radical activists. Republican senator Tim Scott believes that Capitol Police have racially profiled him. Theodore R. Johnson sounded similar notes on our homepage this week, in a piece that I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read if you haven’t. We should want to listen to such voices with an open mind because we should want to listen to them with an open mind. We should also consider that if we don’t, but instead meet their concerns with answers that are no answers, we will have less standing to resist the truly radical and quasi-insurrectionary aspects of the current upheaval.

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