But you usually don't hear about it. I call this the Al Sharpton effect. There is no white version of Al Sharpton.
As the trial of the officers involved in the Sean Bell killing begins, I've been thinking more about police-involved shootings and race. Given media reports, it certainly seems like police only kill black people. But I know this isn't true.
I did a little research. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports from 2000 to 2004, police-involved “justifiable homicides” kill about 350 people a year, 99 percent by shooting. [Update: That UCR data is horribly flawed. Some updated information starting here. And continuing here, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Also this post.]
Virtually all police-involved killings, most for good reason, are categorized as justifiable. Of those killed by police, 32 percent are black and 64 percent are white. While the percentage of blacks killed is high compared with the black percentage in America (13%), it is low compared with other indicators of violence, such as the percentage of homicide victims and offenders believed to be African American (both 48%)
Perhaps it is more useful to compare police-involved shootings with those killed by non-police officers. Among “justifiable homicides” by regular citizens—about 210 a year—African-Americans are 40 percent of those who kill and 56 percent of those killed. Compared with these numbers, police seem restrained in their use of force toward the black community.
Of course the numbers do not tell us the race of innocent people killed. And numbers are no solace to the family of any victim of police bullets.
Update (December 2014): Here's a video of a black officer shooting an unarmed white person. (A disabled vet, for what it's worth.) It happened in March, 2014. I didn't hear about it till much later. Unarmed white people who get shot by police just do not become national news.
Though horrible, and in hindsight wrong, I think the shooting was justifiable. Though not exactly a good shooting... but when that guy gets out of the pick-up truck and the long hard object goes up and into my face -- and keep in mind I'm watching a youtube video and I *know* it's not going to be a gun -- I still felt my ass pucker.
Would a reasonable officer have feared for his or life in that situation? Yeah, potentially, probably, I think so.
It would have been great if the cop had known it was a cane. It also would have been great if the guy hadn't gotten out of his truck on the highway and reached for his cane.
A mistake. But I think a reasonable one. I'd let that cop off.
And just in case you think this is the only unarmed white guy shot by police, here is a second case. Despite what some people think, it's really not that rare for an unarmed white person to be killed by police.
[Update: Here's a 2014 post with racial data on cop killers and those killed by police.
And in 2015 I discovered better non-UCR data.]