Are Encounters with the Police Really More Dangerous for Black Men?

David French, National Review, July 27, 2015

One of the difficulties in reacting rationally to the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the fierce conviction borne of personal experience. The Internet is now full of young activists telling their stories of #DrivingWhileBlack–stories that often feature some combination of a belligerent police officer, a defiant citizen, and the deeply held belief that white people like me enjoy a privileged interaction with police, one that insulates us from the consequences of our own mistakes. These personal stories function like a Rorschach test: The way in which they’re received is dictated entirely by each reader’s ideological leanings.

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When do the anecdotes start to turn into meaningful data? The Guardian is trying to answer that question. FBI data on police shootings are notoriously unreliable, so the British newspaper decided to comb through all available records to determine exactly how many people are killed by police each year–sorted by variables including race, gender, age, and whether the deceased were armed or unarmed. The results so far for 2015 show much higher numbers of police killings than previous FBI reports. They also, at first glance, seem to prove the #BlackLivesMatter thesis that police target black men.

As of July 27, the Guardian claims, American police have killed 657 people in 2015. The large majority, 492, were armed. Some 316 victims were white, 172 black, and 96 Hispanic. (The rest were of other or unknown ethnicities.) Whites constitute a majority of the population, however, and police kill black Americans at a greater rate than whites–with 4.12 black victims per million versus 1.59 white victims per million.

So case closed, right? Not so fast. Comparing police shootings by race with crime statistics by race tells an entirely different story: It may in fact be the case that white Americans are ever-so-slightly more likely than blacks to die in any given encounter with a police officer. After all, blacks commit homicide at eight times the combined white/Hispanic rate, and, despite their constituting roughly 13 percent of the population, represent a majority of homicide and robbery arrests. Indeed, the disproportionate share of arrests exists across all categories of violent crime–at a rate that often exceeds the racial difference in police shootings. Thus, blacks are seriously overrepresented in the most dangerous police encounters of all–encounters with violent suspects.

These statistics can’t tell whether any individual cop is corrupt or any individual shooting is lawful–indeed, police officers do sometimes commit murder, and some police departments are better than others. But they certainly undermine the notion that police encounters (especially with violent criminals) are more dangerous for blacks than whites. In fact, the advice on dealing with police that conscientious black parents give their black sons is the same advice that white parents give–be courteous, do what the police officer says, don’t run or do anything unexpected, deal with abusive actions later rather than trying to seek justice on the scene. It’s just sheer fiction that white men enjoy some sort of shield of immunity, engaging in disrespect and defiance at will. After all, police kill white men almost twice per day.

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