Debunking Myths About the Police: Part II

My last article, “Debunking Myths About Racialized Police Brutality in America,” which focused on the misleading “28 Hours” mantra that is common in the Black Lives Matter movement, was quickly and publicly reduced to “yet another attempt at undercutting a movement dedicated to the equal value of white and non-white lives” (see the Amherst Soul article “My Melanin Is Not A Myth, It’s Your Nightmare”). To this I ask: What does it say about a movement if its rallying cry is undercut by a mere statement of facts — facts taken directly from the very report that inspired it, no less?

For simply stating the truth, I was denigrated as an ignorant racist “single-mindedly committed to perpetuating the silencing of black voices,” according to the response article mentioned above. I know that it is politically incorrect to use facts that make people uncomfortable, but when did honesty give way to matters of convenience?

Only through an honest assessment of the facts can we hope to pinpoint the problem and ameliorate it. Thus, while my last article exposed the disingenuous nature of the claim that “in 2012, police summarily executed more than 313 black people — one every 28 hours,” this alone does not suffice to exonerate the police of problems related to the reality of unnecessary civilian death or the appearance at least of racism. A more comprehensive analysis of all lethal police force is required in order to discern whether people of color disproportionately fall victim to such. No one should accept the status quo: we all must admit that there are ways to improve both policing and safety in America today. But in order to solve those problems, we have to have a very good idea of exactly what they are.

“Deadly Force, in Black and White” has been one of the most frequently cited sources on the subject; news outlets from the New York Times to NPR have widely publicized its findings. This report, originally published by the organization ProPublica, claims that “young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.” While it is easy — even instinctive, for some — to read this statistic and conclude that the police are racist, ProPublica’s analysis in fact neglects to investigate the causes of such a stark disparity. Indeed, it is odd that ProPublica, the first online publication to win a Pulitzer Prize, would leave the most important question unanswered: Namely, what caused this drastic risk differential between white and black males, ages 15 to 19?

To begin to answer that question, one must control for the rate at which black and white male teenagers put themselves at risk of such lethal force. In October of last year, Slate claimed to do just that in an article entitled “Black Teens Vastly More Likely to be Killed by Police Than Whites Even After Adjusting for Crime Rates.” It arrived at this conclusion by using the “21 times greater risk” statistic and controlling for the fact that “black Americans are between two and three times as likely to commit a violent crime as white Americans.” But that “calculation” is nothing more than smoke and mirrors: to compare the rates at which police kill black and white male teenagers, one must control for the violent crime rates of black and white male teenagers — not black and white males and females of all ages. Indeed, the violent crime rate among black male teenagers is significantly higher. For example, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center, they were nine times more likely to commit murder than similarly aged white males. Controlling for that difference alone, ProPublica’s risk figure falls sharply from 21 times as great to 2.3 times — just a fraction of the original claim, but still a serious matter for concern.

The idea that a human being would be 2.3 times more likely to be shot dead because of his skin color remains unacceptable in a supposedly post-racial society. However, we must note that this 2.3 statistic controls only for murder, not all violent crime, and that there are still other confounding factors.

For example, even ProPublica acknowledges in its analysis that the data on fatal police shootings are “terribly incomplete,” as “vast numbers of the country’s 17,000 police departments don’t file fatal police shooting reports at all.” However, what ProPublica fails to mention is that the departments that do file such reports are usually found in urban areas whose populations are on average more than 50 percent more black than the rest of the United States. This is certainly no excuse for the inadequate reporting of such shootings, but it could suggest that there is an under-sampling of the white victims of deadly police force. Instead, ProPublica attempts to disregard the effects of this under-sampling by simply quoting David Klinger, a former police officer and current criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, as saying “the disparity between black and white teenage boys is so wide, ‘I doubt the measurement error would account for that.’” But ProPublica was forced to backtrack on that quote since Klinger himself had not given them permission to quote him. His research later contributed to a Wall Street Journal article which contended that “the latest data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during 2007-2012 were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved. The result: It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.”

Therefore, there is clearly a series of problems at play, but we cannot begin to improve the situation until we know exactly what they are. Slogans and marches are good tools for focusing public attention, but the passions they generate can lead to false conclusions and warped solutions. Police departments should be required to properly report an officer’s use of lethal force no matter how justified the use of force may be. And, until sound evidence that lethal police force is racially motivated exists, our focus should instead be on reducing all use of such force regardless of the victim’s skin color.