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by Peter Moskos

December 12, 2014

Police killing whites and blacks

A lot of people really believe that cops are out there gunning for blacks. People who know more about police officers find this absurd. Of course black lives do indeed matter. But other things being equal (like committing a violent crime), are cops more likely to shoot and kill blacks because they are black? That's an empirical question worth trying to answer. And recent event and protests not withstanding, based on the data we have, the answer seems to be no.

This is not to say there isn't a problem with some police use of lethal (and less-lethal) force. But if you want to improve policing, you're barking up the wrong tree if your only solution is to make cops less racist. I've said it before:
Sure, race matters, but if you want to improve policing, you need to move past the idea that police only do bad things to black people. This isn't a black and white issue. It's a police issue.
Here is what we know: taking population into account, if one looks at black and white men of all ages killed by police (based on very shoddy data, mind you) blacks are four times more likely than whites to be killed by police.That doesn't sound good. But since we know police-involved homicides correlate with homicide and violence among individuals policed, what rate of racial disparity would one expect to find in police-involved homicides? Certainly not 1 to 1.

Somebody on facebook (and no, I won't be your "friend") just asked me a rather basic question: "What is the racial breakdown of those who kill police?" Fair question. And you would think I would have known the answer. But I didn't. I would assume there would be a pretty tight correlation between the race of those feloniously killing cops and the race of those shot and killed by police. Violence begets violence.

At least one would expect that correlation if one thinks, as I do, that cops are not out there gunning for blacks. So I found that we actually do have some decent data about those who kill cops (but not so much the other way around). Based on FBI data of cop killers 289 cop killers have been white and 243 black. (If one really is looked for a group to scapegoat, 98 percent of cop killers are men.)

[This is UCR data from 2004 to 2013. And data is those who kill cops is pretty complete. During these past 10 years, according to Officer Down, a very reliable source, there have been 520 cops shot and killed, 14 stabbed to death, and 82 killed by a vehicle (not all of the latter feloniously).]

Adjusting for population, black men, overall, are 5 times more likely than white men to kill police officers. But to put a less ominous-sounding way, the odds that any given black man will kill a cop this year is 0.000012 percent. For white men it is 0.0000024 percent. And for women it is basically zero.

If one takes rates of violence into account, police are not more likely to shoot and kill blacks than they are whites. Given the racial disparity found in violent crime rates (for homicide it's 6:1, black to white) and the racial disparity among those who kill police officers (5:1, black to white), the disproportionate rate of blacks killed by police (4:1, black to white) (Ed Note: 3:1, based on 2016 Washington Post data, is a more accurate figure) seems, well, less than I would actually expect.

If you find this difficult to believe, consider some possible reasons:

1) Big-city police departments (cities are disproportionately minority) might be better trained and less trigger-happy.

2) Cops in more violent neighborhoods (disproportionately minority, like where I policed in Baltimore) are less likely to over-react to real and perceived threats than are cops in less violent neighborhoods. (Even though these shootings tent to get all the press.)

3) Police might indeed improve and become less likely to be involved in shootings, both good and bad, in response to a public outcry -- and the public simply does not cry out when whites are killed by police.

The idea that police don't use lethal force in a racist way might be a tough pill for many to swallow. But keep in mind that the fact remains that blacks are indeed four times more likely than whites to be killed by police! Even if the cause isn't racist cops, something is seriously wrong. So what is the solution? As I've said before:
If one wishes -- as one should -- to reduce the racial disparity of police-involved shootings, one needs to focus on racial disparities in crime and violence in general. If one wishes -- as one should -- to reduce the incidences of unjustified police shootings and improper police use-of-force, one needs to improve police training and reduce police militarization.
It's also worth mentioning, unrelated to race, the average age of your average killer of cops is 30, which is higher than I would expect. And in case you were wondering why cops want to keep everybody in jail? Well among cop killers, 82 percent (n=565) have been previously arrested (and 63 percent convicted) of a previous crime. Twenty of those who killed police officers (3.5 percent of the total) had a previous conviction for murder. And then they got out and kept killing.

[see follow up]


Noumenon said...

This kind of hinges on "violence begets violence", but do cops have gun battles with cop killers, or do they shoot mostly easier targets who naturally have different demographics than hardened killers?

campbell said...

People like scapegoats and easy fixes. "The cops are racist" lets everyone feel superior and not examine their role in a society where black people are hugely disproportionately bearing the brunt of violent crime. The answer to "why are so many black people shot by the police" is "racism", but not in the way people think it is.

People are down to "take action" against these problems when it involves chanting and waving a sign. Voting for a tax increase and making drug possession a misdemeanor? Not so much.

Peter Moskos said...

Mostly cops shoot people who are an immediate lethal threat to the cop (and sometimes others). And those people come in all shapes and sizes. A few a hardened criminals. Some are off their meds. Many simply aren't very smart.

Noumenon said...

I guess the typical video that goes viral is a poor guide to how police shootings usually go. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOZutoezDZY is the only one in the first page for "cop killing" that has an actual attacker, and it's a terrible angle. There's also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlLarq9uNs4 , but it's basically unwatchable and makes me pity all the justice system people who will have to review footage from all these shaky bodycams. Probably with no extra budget for doing it because they spent it all on bodycams.

bacchys said...

I hope few people are saying that the police can never use deadly force, regardless of the circumstances. It seems fatuous to me to complain that an actually justified shooting is based on race. If a cop (or anyone) is shot at by someone else and returns fire, I don't think the colour of the original shooter is anywhere in that person's mind when he defends himself. YMMV.

At least some of those homicides by cops are justifiable, just as some of the homicides by non-cops are. The real issue, imo, is the manner in which either is investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted.

Acacia Ronning said...

Thank you, Sir, for wading through the data to write this op-ed. This article address the very issues I have been concerned about. As a scientist, I make my decisions based on empirical data. I have been wracking my brain searching through various databases available to citizens and came across the very same issues you mention above in your article.

Job well done, Sir!

Best regards to you and yours,

Anonymous said...

In the last 10 years 45% Percent of cops killed in America were killed by 7% of the population, male blacks. Info from FBI.gov.