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Department: Casualty Report
Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, news coverage of officer-involved shootings has raised questions about racial bias in officer-civilian interactions and particularly in shootings involving unarmed civilians. On the other side of the issue, questions have also been raised about possible racial motivations behind civilian attacks on police, such as the deadly attack in Dallas in July 2016, when a black man named Micah Johnson killed five officers and injured seven others, as well as two civilians, during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Two questions emerge from these and similar events:
(1) Is racial bias a common factor in officer-involved shootings?
(2) Is police safety compromised because of media
coverage of officer-involved shootings?
A look at the numbers shows that these questions require more complex answers than a simple yes or no.
Article originally appeared in
Violence Against Police
Both the FBI and the non-profit National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) keep records of police officers who have died while in the line of duty.
Here are some relevant FBI figures for the year 2015:1
• 86 officers were killed while in the line of duty.
• 45 died because of auto or other types of accident.
• 41 were killed in felonious assault, of whom:
• 38 were killed with firearms (29 with a handgun), 3 with a vehicle use as a weapon;
• 38 were male, 3 female;
• 29 were white, 8 black, and the remaining 4 of other ethnicities.
• Of the 37 identified assailants, 31 had prior criminal arrests, and 9 were under judicial supervision at the time of the incident.
Here are some data from the NLEOMF for the year 2016:2
• 135 officers were killed while in the line of duty.
• 53 were killed from traffic-related accidents;
• 64 were killed by firearms;
• 18 died from other causes.
• The three states with the most officer fatalities were Texas (17), California (10), and Louisiana (9).
Civilians Killed in Officer-Related Shootings
The number of people who have been killed in officer-involved shootings is difficult to find because the FBI does not have an official count and many cities do not keep accurate records—although Dallas has records dating back to 2003, which are publicly available on the Dallas Police Department's website.3
Nationally, the Obama administration launched the Police Data Initiative in 2015, and the Obama Justice Department announced in October 2016 that it would begin collecting national data statistics on officer-civilian encounters in 2017.4
In the private sector, the Washington Post made tallies in 2015 and 2016 of the number of people shot to death by police officers, and it has begun a tally for 2017.5
According to the Post's data for 2015 (the latest available at time of writing), there were 991 fatal police shootings that year, with the following racial-ethnic breakdown among the victims:
• 494 white
• 258 black/African-American
• 172 Hispanic
• 38 other ethnicity
• 28 unknown ethnicity
Though African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised 26 percent of the victims of fatal shootings, according to the Post, but it is pertinent to consider that approximately 50 percent of convicted murderers in the U.S. are black, and, in general, blacks are more likely to be both the victims and the perpetrators of homicides. (A 2013 report showed that black males are nine times more likely than white males to be the victims of homicide.6) These facts make it difficult to attribute their relatively high representation among victims of police shootings purely to racial bias.7
The Washington Post's figures also showed the following breakdown with respect to the context of the 991 fatal police shootings in 2015:8
• In 782 of the shootings, the victims had a deadly weapon.
• In 55 shootings, the victims used a vehicle to attack officers.
• In 33 shootings, the officers were threatened with a toy weapon.
• In 94 shootings, the victims were unarmed.
• The circumstances surrounding 27 of the shootings are unknown.
Harvard Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., attempted to answer the question whether racial bias was a factor in officer-involved shootings by studying data obtained from several sources, analyzed in the following three groupings:
I. The New York City Police Department's "Stop, Question, and Frisk" program;
II. The national Police Contact Survey, conducted by the National Bureau of Justice Statistics; and
III. The Texas cities of Austin, Dallas, and Houston; six large counties in Florida; and Los Angeles County, California.
In the resultant paper, published in July 2016,9 Fryer notes the limitations of each data set and explains how his methodology addresses those limitations. But even with the limitations, his paper provides some helpful findings, including:
I. Data from NYC's Stop-and-Frisk program (police perspective):
• 58 percent of all stops recorded were of black civilians; 25 percent were of Hispanics.
• Blacks were 7–15 percent more likely than whites to have force used against them.
• Most civilians stopped were young males, median age of 24 (median age in NYC is 35).
• Most stops occurred outside, after sundown, and in high-crime areas.
• In only 3 percent of the stops did police find a weapon or contraband.
II. Data from the Police Contact Survey (civilian perspective):
• Blacks comprised about 11 percent of the sample.
• 53 percent of the respondents were women.
• Average age of respondents was 17 years older than that of civilians stopped in NYC's Stop-and-Frisk program.
• As the use of force increased (e.g., use of pepper spray or a baton), racial differences disappeared.
III. Data from the three Texas cities, six Florida counties, and LA County related to 1,332 officer-involved shootings over a 15-year period:
• 46 percent of those shot were black; 30 percent were Hispanic; 24 percent of other ethnicity, mostly white.
• Houston accounted for 38 percent of the shootings; Austin and Dallas, 20 percent; Florida's 6 counties, 27 percent; Los Angeles County, 15 percent.
• Statistically, blacks and Hispanics were less likely than whites to be shot by police, although the statistical differences were not significant. In other words, when controls and other relevant factors are taken into account, there is no statistically greater or lesser likelihood of a black person being shot by police than a white or Hispanic person.
• The statistics regarding racial differences in officer-involved shootings remained constant between 2000 and 2015.
In summary, Fryer's data seem to show that racial bias does occur in non-lethal officer-civilian interactions. Such bias appears to drop off, however, as the interaction becomes more aggressive. In the case of shootings, there does not seem to be a racial bias at all. Fryer himself called this result "startling."10 •
Another study, by Dr. James Buehler of Drexel University and publicized in December 2016, looked at data from public records for the years 2010–2014, which showed that 2,285 individuals died at the hands of police, 96 percent of them male. Although white males comprised the largest actual number of those killed by police, Buehler concluded that, given their proportionate representation in the general population, black males, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives were 2.8 times more likely than whites to be killed by a police officer, and Hispanic males were 1.7 times more likely.1
On the surface, Buehler's findings counter Fryer's, but Buehler's report provides no contextual information, such as might show whether a police shooting was warranted or not under the circumstances. Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of The War on Cops (Encounter Books, 2016), reviewed Buehler's report and calls it both "laughingly incomplete" and "dangerously irresponsible."2
MacDonald points out that, in making much of the racial disparity while not even mentioning the gender disparity (i.e., males were 24 times more likely to be shot by police than females) among victims of police shootings, Buehler employed a double standard. Of course, she continues, the gender disparity is not alarming because people readily acknowledge that men are more likely to commit violent crimes than women and thus are more likely to be involved in situations where police would be driven to use force. Hence, "no cop-hater ever complains that males are massively overrepresented in police-civilian interactions."
Similarly, if Buehler had employed a "crime benchmark" to take into account racial disparities among perpetrators of violent crimes, his findings would have been less dramatic. But in drawing his conclusions based solely on population data, he produced a study that "is worse than useless" because it is "wielded as a bludgeon in the current anti-cop crusade." The effect of such reports, says MacDonald, is that the people who need -protection the most—the victims of violent crimes and the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas—are the ones who receive it least.
Of course, individual cases of racially motivated police violence do occur and must be addressed. But responsible studies show that there is no general trend of racial bias among police. •
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