What Police Shootings Data Tells Us

My recent post on the Colin Kaepernick controversy sparked some thoughtful responses that argued his charge of “oppression” against blacks is well-founded given incidents of police shootings of black men, whom they argued, are being shot in “record numbers.” So, I took a deep dive into the data on police shootings to see if they were right.

But first, let’s revisit the bounds of the proposition at issue. Is Colin justified when he says that police shootings demonstrate that America is “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

The question is not whether some level of racial bias exists. That is not the same as oppression. Rather, whether the United States, as a society, oppresses blacks and other people of color in a deliberate manner. Colin’s assertion of oppression implies an unjust and cruel use of official power by one group (police) in order to deny the rights and liberties of another (blacks). Further, if the U.S. as a whole is oppressive, this behavior should be considered relatively acceptable.

Those who support the charge of oppression point to the number of instances of police shootings, and how rarely officers are prosecuted in connection with them, as evidence that this is indeed the case. However, after reviewing the data on police shootings and the legal process for prosecutions of deadly use of force cases, the assertion of oppression is hard to justify.

What Police Shootings Data Does (and Doesn’t) Tell Us

It’s difficult to tell whether young black men actually are being shot in “record” numbers, as some commenters have asserted. While we have undoubtedly heard more about such cases, especially in the wake of Ferguson, there is a lack of good data to answer that question. The FBI does not maintain detailed historical statistics on police use of deadly force. Whether police shootings of blacks are more common, or whether there is simply more news coverage of them, is impossible to answer conclusively.

Beginning in 2015, the Washington Post began tracking police shootings across the country. Using that data, we can evaluate whether police shootings of black men rise to the level of what could be fairly called “oppression.” To validate the claim of oppression, we would expect to see black men shot by police in great numbers and with less objective justification than whites. Is that story born out by the data?

Since the start of this year, 630 people have been fatally shot by police according to the Washington Post database of police shootings. Of those shot, 156 (25%) were black and 293 (47%) were white. The overwhelming majority of deadly use of force incidents involve officers defending themselves or others actively under attack by an armed suspect. These shootings are almost certainly justified.

However, in 38 cases police shot a person who was unarmed. Of these, 19 were white and 13 were black. While the numbers are small, it is nevertheless a valid concern. I looked at each of the cases to see whether there were differences in incidents involving blacks and whites that suggested oppression.

All cases of police use of deadly force, regardless of race, involved circumstances that could plausibly explain the shootings outside of racial motivation. For example, in one case, shots were fired at Sheriffs deputies engaged in a pursuit of a black carjacking suspect. When they stopped the suspect, he charged at the officers and the deputies fired. The deputies could reasonably fear that he was armed considering that they had already been fired upon.

Is there a lower bar for use of deadly force against unarmed blacks than against unarmed whites?

The circumstances of use of deadly force against whites seem substantially similar to those in shootings of blacks. In most of the cases, white and black, the person was shot after physically attacking officers or charging at them in a threatening way. In one case involving blacks and three involving whites, the suspect was shot after reaching for something officers mistakenly thought was a weapon. Two blacks and three whites were shot after failing to comply with an officers instructions. Ten of the shootings involving blacks and twelve shootings of whites involved someone actively committing a crime or suspected of being involved with one. However, there was one significant difference. Shootings involving routine traffic stops were more common in cases involving whites than those involving blacks. Whites were shot in six cases after being pulled over. Only two cases of shootings of blacks involved traffic stops.

Overall, more whites are shot by police than blacks. Some point out that police shootings involving blacks are higher relative to black’s share of population, and they’d be right. Still, viewed in the context of the circumstances surrounding these shootings, incidents involving blacks were arguably no more questionable than those involving whites. This is not to say racial bias can be ruled out completely, just that the anecdotal evidence does not support a charge of deliberate oppression. The broader question of whether cops are too trigger happy is not a matter that can be defined in terms of racial oppression alone.

Why are Deadly Use of Force Cases so Rarely Prosecuted?

Prosecutions of cops involved in lethal use of force incidents are relatively rare, causing widespread accusations that police are above the law. Last year, police were indicted in 18 cases involving shootings in the line of duty. This represents only a small fraction of the 990 instances of lethal use of force last year. Should that be seen as evidence that the police are permitted to act outside the law? Probably not.

There are at least two good reasons for the relatively small number of prosecutions in use of lethal force cases:

First, police are well-trained in the appropriate use of force. The overwhelming majority of police shootings are unquestionably justified.

Second, the Supreme Court established a relatively high bar for prosecutions of shootings by cops in the line of duty. In the 1989 case of Graham v. Conner, the court ruled that the legitimacy of an officers decision to shoot must be judged through the lens of whether it was:

“’objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.”

As a result, cases that may appear unjustified after the fact are often not prosecuted. This leads to a great deal of anger and charges that the prosecutor is protecting the cop. But, the court was correct, in my view, when it found that:

“[t]he ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

Deadly use of force cases are probably infrequent primarily because the legal standard for what constitutes an unjustified shooting is rarely met. Cops have to do a very difficult and dangerous job in which they must make split-second decisions that could mean the difference between life and death for themselves and the citizens they are charged to protect. To require them to make those decisions on anything other than the facts available to them at the time could cripple their ability to effectively carry out their duties. This complicates the task of creating policies to reduce police shootings without putting cops and the public in greater danger.

Finally, even if a shooting is legitimate, any use of deadly force will be heavily scrutinized. The officer will usually, at the very least, be placed on leave pending investigation. In cases in which a white officer shoots a black suspect, the FBI will likely be involved as well. Even if the shooting doesn’t rise to the level of criminal prosecution, the officer may face other sanctions. So, there are strong incentives for officers to avoid deadly use of force unless absolutely necessary.

All this leads me to conclude that while some level of racial bias in our society cannot be ruled out, the charge of widespread “oppression” significantly overstates the case.

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