Commentary

Narrative of Racist Police Killings Melts When You Know These Stats

By Hans Bader | June 8, 2020 | 4:24pm EDT
Police in riot gear look on during a protest against police brutality and racism on June 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo credit: Johnny Louis/Getty Images)
Police in riot gear look on during a protest against police brutality and racism on June 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo credit: Johnny Louis/Getty Images)

Most killings by police occur for reasons unrelated to race.

Most people killed by police in America are white -- not African-Americans. For example, Daniel Shaver was white. He was shot and killed while sobbing and pleading for his life, trying to comply with confusing orders from the police. The cop who killed him was terminated, but later reinstated just long enough to qualify for a taxpayer-provided pension.

Most people killed by the police have a weapon and pose a threat to the police or innocent third parties. The number of unarmed people killed by the police is much smaller. In 2019, 15 unarmed black people were shot and killed by on-duty police officers, compared with 25 whites. Victims remain mostly white if you expand the tally to include off-duty police officers and deaths from causes other than gun shots. Mapping Police Violence recently counted 28 unarmed blacks and 51 unarmed whites who died at the hands of police in 2019.

But the media, progressives, and political activists often leave the misimpression that the problem is entirely racial. In its "Friday briefing" to readers like me, the New York Times wrote, "It can often feel like nothing changes with police killings. Gruesome, high-profile cases keep coming — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, now Manuel Ellis." Each of the six dead people it lists is African-American, even though most police shooting victims are white.

The Times lists Michael Brown, but there is no reason to think that his killing was racial in nature. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that "[Ferguson police officer Darren] Wilson was justified in shooting Brown," according to the Justice Department. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, "It was reasonable for police Officer Darren Wilson to be afraid of Michael Brown in their encounter last summer, a Justice Department investigation concluded, and thus he cannot be prosecuted for fatally shooting" Brown. An 86-page report by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division found that both physical evidence and "credible" witnesses supported Officer Wilson’s version of an event that triggered looting and rioting in Ferguson.

But progressives -- and even the Libertarian Party -- persist in depicting Officer Wilson as a murderer. The Libertarian Party recently listed "Michael Brown" and his death as an example of "systemic" racism and "extrajudicial killings, and blatant violence toward black communities" by police. Many libertarian criminal justice activists falsely peddled the claim that Michael Brown was shot as he surrendered with his hands up. This "hands up, don't shoot" claim was later debunked by the Obama Justice Department, but only after it was widely peddled on CNN and other liberal media.

The Libertarian Party also jumps to conclusions in assuming that disgraceful police killings like the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis are due to race. A study by the black Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that police killings are not primarily due to racism, and racism does not play a significant role in police shootings nationally.

Libertarian National Committee Chairman Nicholas Sarwark approvingly retweeted a statement by Ben & Jerry's claiming that "the murder of George Floyd was the result" of a "culture of white supremacy" and the "predictable consequence of a racist" system. But two of the officers charged in George Floyd's death are themselves minorities: Alexander Kueng, who has an Asian-sounding name but identifies as black, and Tou Thao. As such, they are unlikely to be "white supremacists." Minnesota has a hate-crimes law that heightens penalties for racially-motivated crimes, but none of those involved in Floyd's killing have been charged with a hate crime because there is currently no evidence that it was committed based on race. So Sarwark seems to be jumping to conclusions.

"White officers are no more likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot black civilians," notes the Manhattan Institute. Nor are minority officers any less likely to commit police brutality: Five of the six officers involved in a notorious recent police brutality case in Atlanta are black. Washington, D.C.'s police department has historically killed civilians at a much higher rate than New York City's, even though Washington had a much higher percentage of black officers. As the Washington Post noted in 1998, "The District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department have shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force."

Sarwark also downplays the harms of rioting and looting, quoting an individual who said said, “If seeing people looting stores makes you more upset than watching a cop kill a black man, please work on yourself.”

But looting can take far more lives than a police shooting. People are sometimes murdered by looters, like David Dorn, the black retired police captain shot to death by looters in St. Louis on Tuesday. Looting also increases the death rate by wiping out businesses that provide needed employment and high-quality health insurance for their employees. It plunders pharmacies and other businesses that provide life-saving necessities. Riots in predominantly black areas can economically devastate those areas and increase unemployment for years, as happened in Detroit. Michael Barone describes how he "saw rioting in the name of justice destroy a city for decades." A devastated economy contributes to despair, drug addiction, and early deaths.

Instead of downplaying the harms of looting, people concerned about saving black lives should push for reforms that actually save lives, like repealing state laws that make it hard to fire abusive police officers. Derek Chauvin, the police officer most responsible for killing George Floyd, remained a cop even after at least 18 citizens filed complaints against him alleging past misconduct. Minnesota has a union-backed law that makes it very hard to fire bad police officers.

They should also resist calls from prominent Democrats to "defund the police." Police save many lives in the black community by arresting dangerous people. Black people are much more likely to be killed by an ordinary criminal than by a police officer. Peter Kirsanow, a black civil-rights commissioner, says that in 2015, "a cop was 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male was likely to be killed by a cop.”

Cutting police funding may leave the police without the manpower needed to investigate and arrest many violent criminals. It is often harder to investigate murders in poor black neighborhoods, where witnesses fear retaliation. For example, Chicago solves 47 percent of cases when a murder victim is white, but only 22 percent of cases when the victim is black.

When criminals are arrested and jailed, that reduces the crime rate. The National Bureau of Economic Research discusses how “sentence enhancements reduce crime,” by keeping “repeat offenders” off the streets. Criminal penalties also save lives by deterring murder. As the Associated Press noted in 2007, “Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).”

Removing police from black communities increases the death rate, because black murder victims are usually killed by other black people in the same community. Eighty-nine percent of black victims are killed by black offenders, according to the FBI.

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department.

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