Police Violence Against Black Men Is Rare

Philippe Lemoine, National Review, September 18, 2017

A few days ago, former police officer Jason Stockley, who is white, was acquitted of first-degree murder; he had fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, in 2011.

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This article is not about whether Stockley should have been acquitted. Instead, I want to talk about the underlying narrative regarding the prevalence of police brutality against black men in the U.S., which is largely undisputed in the media.

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This narrative is false. In reality, a randomly selected black man is overwhelmingly unlikely to be victim of police

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Let’s start with the question of fatal violence. Last year, according to the Washington Post’s tally, just 16 unarmed black men, out of a population of more than 20 million, were killed by the police.

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You don’t hear people talk about an epidemic of lightning strikes and claim they are afraid to go outside because of it. Liberals often make the same comparison when they argue that it’s completely irrational to fear that you might become a victim of terrorism.

One might retort that, while it may be rare for a black man to be killed by the police, black men are still constantly stopped and routinely brutalized by the police, even if they don’t die from it. However, even this weaker claim is false. It just isn’t true that black men are kicked, punched, etc., on a regular basis by the police.

In order to show that, I’m going to use data from the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS).

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It’s conducted on a regular basis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and is based on a nationally representative sample of more than 70,000 U.S. residents age 16 or older. Respondents are asked whether they had a contact with the police during the past 12 months.

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First, despite what the narrative claims, it’s not true that black men are constantly stopped by the police for no reason.

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If we look at how often the police use physical force against men of different races, we find that there is indeed a racial disparity, but that this experience is rare across the board. Only 0.6 percent of black men experience physical force by the police in any given year, while approximately 0.2 percent of white men do.

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Further, physical force as defined by the PPCS includes relatively mild forms of violence such as pushing and grabbing. Actual injuries by the police are so rare that one cannot estimate them very precisely even in a survey as big as the PPCS, but the available data suggest that only 0.08 percent of black men are injured by the police each year, approximately the same rate as for white men. A black man is about 44 times as likely to suffer a traffic-related injury, according to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Moreover, keep in mind that these tallies of police violence include violence that is legally justified.

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Men are vastly more likely to experience police violence than women are, but while bias may explain part of this disparity, nobody doubts that most of it has to do with the fact that men are on average far more violent than women. Similarly, if black men commit violent crimes at much higher rates than white men, that might have a lot to do with the disparity in the use of force by the police.

This is evident in the National Crime Victimization Survey, another survey of the public conducted by the BJS.

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NCVS data from 2015, the most recent year available, suggest that black men are three times as likely to commit violent crimes as white men. To the extent that cops are more likely to use force against people who commit violent crimes, which they surely are, this could easily explain the disparities we have observed in the rates at which the police use force. That’s not to say that bias plays no role; I’m sure it does play one. But it’s unlikely to explain a very large part of the discrepancy.

Some might say that, instead of consulting statistics like these, we should defer to black Americans’ own perceptions of how the police treat them. As various polls have demonstrated, black people are much more likely than white people to think that police violence against minorities is very common. But the issue cannot be settled this way.

Since individuals have direct knowledge of what happened to them personally, you can trust them about that. But when it comes to larger social phenomena, people’s beliefs are influenced by far more than just their personal experience, including the media. The far more compelling fact is that, if you draw a representative sample of the population and ask each black man in that sample whether a police officer has used physical force against him in the past year, you find that it’s extremely rare.

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