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by Peter Moskos

April 8, 2015

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free...

A bad police-involved shooting is a bad shooting. Now admittedly police, being armed representatives of the state, have a higher degree of responsibility than an average Joe. But my problem with the dozen or so media requests I get after something like this is perspective and selective outrage. Perhaps 500 or 600 people are killed by police America each year (it's a shame we don't know for sure). The vast majority are justified.

Just today in my newsfeed there are stories about these other issues. And I'm happy they're in the news. But these are mostly one-off issues. Bad shootings by police are such a small part of greater nationwide problems. And nobody is calling me about any of these other issues. They don't galvanize the public. Why not?

1) People out of jail can't get jobs. This is a problem that affects 66 million Americans. 66 million! Oh, well.

2) A prisoner who was going to be released this month dies because of bad health care. A dialysis technician didn't show up for work. You know, sometimes people can't get to work. But is our system so screwed up that there's no backup plan? Somebody died. Others were hospitalized. Hope it doesn't happen again. But it will.

3) Something like 90 rounds were fired at a Sweet 16 party in Cincinnati. Just another day in the city. People be crazy. Oh, well. (Also in Cincinnati papers today parents were charged in killing their 2-year-old child. And officials identified a man, a white man with a knife, who was killed by Cincinnati police on Monday.)

4) A professional basketball player was cut in some stupid club argument.

5) In Ferguson, you know, that Ferguson, all of 30 percent of registered voters voted in a local election. And that was considered high voter turnout. I mean, if you're not voting in Ferguson in this election this year... Jeeze, what can I say?

Meanwhile, and not just today:

5) More than two-million Americans woke up today behind bars. No other country in the history of the world has locked up so many people, by rate or numbers. I mean Rwanda is the only country that comes close, by rate. And they, it should be pointed out, had a friggin' genocide.

6) Best I know, villages in St. Louis County and elsewhere are still funding 30 percent of their budget through taxes, fines, and civil penalties, in effect criminalizing having no money. Similar to the guy in South Carolina who was wanted for failure to pay child support, and then killed. Oh, well.

And this is just the news from today. And the only way we seem to be able to broach any of these issues is in relation to a questionable police-involved shooting. Here's the problem: Even if there were no bad police-involved shootings, a few dozen people each year wouldn't be be dead. But shouldn't we also care that 38 Americans who are going to be murdered today. 120 Americans will die today from drug overdoses (about half prescription and half illegal drugs). 110 Americans will kill themselves today. Oh, well.


Anonymous said...

Hoping you're teaching this stuff.

Anonymous said...

You are not seen as an expert in very many, if any, of those issues. You are seen as an expert in this area. And your assertion that the vast majority of police shootings are justified is a red herring for reasons too many and nuanced for a blog comment sections (especially by someone who thinks you are incredibly wrong about justified force at a moral level). But let's begin with the fact that "justified" does not equal "good". Continue with the fact that the determination for "justified" is made by people like you who I think are morally suspect (without video, this one would probably have been ruled "justified"). End the comment with the observation that the trust relationship between the police and the public is very important and your discomfort with a clearly bad situation is not because you are really concerned about the relative importance of the issues you identified, but because YOUR moral argument has been significantly threatened by this incident. (where I lost my respect for you was your analysis of the Cleveland shooting)

Peter Moskos said...

Why would you waste your time on somebody you have no respect for?

Anonymous said...

Any sports fan has seen it. Terrible call by the ref or umpire and the manager/coach come roaring out of the dugout/from the sideline to protest. Is the call going to change? Nope. But I don't think I have ever heard a sports fan refer to this as a "waste of time". (Well, to be honest, the people who root for the opposition will often use that tack to discount the argument.)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Are you really, seriously asking why people care so much about who watches the watchmen? Control of the security forces is one of the defining questions of civilization. It's not about the total number of deaths, it's about what those deaths, and the impunity of the killers, says about our country. If Obama shot a guy dead and pardoned himself, I would expect everyone to lose their shit, and I would not accept "Well y'know a lot of people die all the time" as an acceptable change of subject.
(oh, and also: the people who killed their kid, and whoever cut the basketball player, will almost certainly be tried and convicted. When cops murder people, that outcome is not so sure. Which is another reason we're pissed off).

CollegeCop said...

Fuzzy misses the point. No one is questioning why people would be concerned about the actions of law enforcement officers, people pay taxes and have a right (and duty) to be concerned.

I think the professor is saying what I (as a LEO and as black man) always say: There is no good reason for these issues to magnified to such a level when other worse things get little attention. Of course the numbers are inaccurate, but if you use 2012 statistics on murder and police involved killings, black people are somewhere close to 57 times more likely to be killed by another black person than by a police officer of any race.

And yet the riots and protesting occurs when it's a white cop involved (killings by black cops don't ever generate near as much angst even though the professor revealed on this blog that statistically black police officers are more likely to be involved in a deadly force incident against black citizens than white officers are).

And everyone does it. It's not just a black thing.

Whites are scared of being murdered by blacks when it's whites that overwhelmingly kill other white people. Native born people fear illegal immigrant crime when illegal immigrants are less likely to commit any kind of crime compared to native born and 2nd generation Americans (https://asunews.asu.edu/node/24489), people in the middle east are screaming Death to America in countries where their own governments are more likely to kill them. And so on.

Peter Moskos said...

Yeah, what he said.

Of course we should care (and care more) about cops. What I'm arguing against is the idea that racist cops are gunning for black folks. The idea that police are the greatest threat to Americans, black Americans in particular? That is not about watching the watchman. It's about creating a national hysteria based on something that isn't true.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Numbers aren't everything. If the number of deaths told you what to care about, we'd be constantly panicked about road safety and indifferent to 9/11. I'm not missing the point, I'm saying there *is* good reason for these issues to be magnified. Because police are agents of the state; they are my representatives, and they are the essential spine of a society. And when your spine is messed up, nothing else can work very well. That's part of why people make more of a fuss over police murders than civilian.

The other reason is that police are accorded a benefit of the doubt, often verging on an immunity from prosecution, that regular killers don't have. As a society, we trust police officers with deadly force. When they kill an innocent person, it's not just a murder, it's a deep violation of trust.

I don't agree with everything in Greg Howard's recent piece, this section did stand out:
"Witnessing all these shootings and killings creates a constant state of terror within minorities, not altogether different from the effect larger populations feel witnessing passenger planes flying into buildings, or gunmen cutting their way through schools and shopping malls, or children blowing themselves up in cramped bazaars. The issue doesn't involve absolute numbers; it involves the effect of knowing that at any time, your number could come up.

The difference is that when the Boston Marathon is bombed, or people fly planes into buildings, or an aggrieved loner goes on a killing spree, we, as a society, pursue justice to the very ends of the earth, if only to sleep better at night. When killer cops rarely, if ever, even step foot in court, let alone get convicted, the absence of immediate justice or punishment leads to an unaddressed fear. It's a fear of ubiquity; a fear that the carnage can be easily replicated, virtually anywhere, by virtually anyone; a fear that our lives don't matter."

Peter Moskos said...

"The effect of knowing that at any time, your number could be up." Welcome to the mindset of a police officer!

If fear of the Marathon Bombing translates to a hatred and fear of all things Muslim, that would be bad, too.

Fear should be based on reality. Otherwise it's just a phobia.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for suggesting you are a worthless human being. You are someone who is clearly intelligent who seems to defend a status quo that I believe makes this country a worse place. We probably agree on police reform in many areas, but your staunch defense of what I consider the indefensible (i.e. the Cleveland shooting), I believe makes true reform difficult.

Cops lie a lot (and make mistakes); that's the truth I am seeking to have a conversation/fight about. I want more accountability for their lies (and for their mistakes). I want a discussion about when cops should be given breaks or monitored more closely or terminated so the public is protected. (It struck me immediately that the SC cop just like the BART cop was on the verge of welcoming a child.)

I didn't realize that it's a "national hysteria" based on racism. That might be a galvanizing factor, but it's not really the concern here. Don't confuse the slogan for the message.

I call you an "asshole" when you make risible defenses (good word there) of bad shootings that may, in your framework, I'm trying to grow here, I removed "insane" as an adjective in the above sentence) still be ruled "justified" (even if later civil judgements show them to be wrong. Don't confuse the slogan for the message.

CollegeCop said...


That's just rationalizing IMO and much of ti is based on ignorance. To the outsider (who tend to form their opinion of police not on police but on TV depictions of police that are then clouded by their own personal biases), cops 'get away with murder' all the time. But people who actually know something about the issues know this: Many times even a justified use of Deadly force will have bad consequences on a person and that person's law enforcement career.

A use of force incident means your life is about to be torn apart and examined by multiple people (and in many states, by multiple levels of government/law enforcement) including the media and 'activist groups' that don't like LEOs in the 1st place.

This is why a group of armed people with special authority (law enforcement officers) that total more than 800,000 souls and that serves a country of more than 300 MILLION people (a country that that has more guns that cars btw) only has at best a few HUNDRED members involved in citizen shootings/killings every year. A group that should be viewed as incredibly restrained (mainly because it contains hundreds of thousands of members that will carry guns for 20+ years and never shoot anyone) is instead viewed as "dangerous".

It's nonsense, an no amount of "cops are state agents and thus held to a higher standard" can justify the wrong headed prejudice directed at cops in these kinds of situations.

Peter Moskos said...

Only tangentially related, does anybody know more about this website?


It's far from perfect, but it seems like a good-faith effort to answer the important unanswered question about how many people die at the hands of police.

And the answer seems to be about 1,100 a year. This is a bit more than twice what is reported to the UCR. But for what it's worth, at least when it comes to the racial breakdown, the data seem to be consistent. (In stats terms this means the UCR missing data might be random, which is good and very important statistically.)

According to that site (and the UCR), about 30% of those killed by cops are black (half are white; 25% of data is missing). 30% is less than one would expect if one would assume, as I would, a pretty good correlation between the race of people cops kill and levels of violence by race. For instance, 44% of those who feloniously kill cops are black (over the past decade).

Matt said...

@ Fuzzy

When deciding if "killer cops" get off scot free while harsh justice is served on other people who kill, it is more appropriate to compare the handling of police homicides with those of citizens claiming self-defense.

Peter, would the stats allow for a search isolating homicides where self-defense is claimed in order to determine the numbers of those that go to grand jury, trial, and get convictions?

Anonymous said...

www.killedbycops.org is great.

The great think is that it is totally transparent. They list race, but don't label someone black if their name is tyrone, or hispanic if Jose.

If anyone disagrees with ANY of the data, they can verify or falsify it by looking at the links as well as finding their own via google.

Even more important, it is possible to take a baysian approach, take a personal belief/prejudice and examine it while looking at real data.

For example, I assumed that since Chicago has an impressive murder total,there should be a lot of KBC's. However, examining IL in the 2015 dataset reveals only a couple of KBC's in the city.

And just going through a few dozen, there look like very few shootings with a sympathetic, non criminal victim without a record or something sketchy. That is, an average employed person minding their own business during the day.

It takes a decent sized sample to 'prove' something. But hypotheses can easily be generated by very small samples. And then, they are frequently easy to reject.

And what I mean is something like 20% of KBC's involve domestic disputes.

That the data can be augmented with other variables with only a moderate amount of work is fascinating.