The Truth About Police Shootings in America

Photo courtesy of J J via Flickr

 

Dan O’Donnell dives deep into the data to provide perhaps the most comprehensive analysis yet of officer-involved shootings in the United States.

April 14, 2021

Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

“Policing in our country is inherently and intentionally racist,” Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib tweeted Monday in a predictably hysterical response to a deadly officer-involved shooting in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

On Sunday, while arresting 20-year-old Daunte Wright for an outstanding warrant, Officer Kim Potter fired a single shot at Wright as he wrestled with fellow officers and tried to drive away.

“Taser! Taser! Taser!” Potter can be heard yelling on body camera video of the incident.

“As I watched the video and listened to the officer’s commands, it is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their taser but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet,” Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said in a news conference the following day.  “This appears to me, from what I viewed, and the officer’s reaction and distress immediately after, that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in a tragic death of Mr. Wright.”

An investigation is ongoing, but Potter—and, it seems, every police officer in America by extension—has already been judged to be guilty.

“We need to abolish American policing as it currently exists,” declared MSNBC pundit Jason Johnson.

“Daunte Wright’s killing was not a random, disconnected ‘accident,’” added New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  “It was the repeated outcome of an indefensible system that grants impunity for state violence.”

This could not possibly be farther from the truth.  Although braying politicians and dishonest media narratives have convinced millions that systemic racism in policing that has led to an epidemic of deadly officer-involved shootings in recent years, the actual evidence just doesn’t support this.

The Washington Post has created a database of every known deadly police shooting in America since 2015.  As of this writing, 6,211 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement officers.  46% of them—2,883 to be exact—were white, while 24% (1,496 total) were black.

Just 6% were unarmed.

One of the most pernicious myths about police shootings is that officers shoot unarmed black men at an alarming rate, when in fact just 2% of the people who were killed by an officer were unarmed and black.  Since the beginning of 2015, law enforcement officers across the country have actually killed 33 more unarmed white people than unarmed black people.

Nearly every single person police officers have shot and killed since The Washington Post started its comprehensive database has been armed, yet the popular misconception persists that law enforcement is killing unarmed black men at a staggering rate.

While it is true that since whites comprise 76.3% of the US population and blacks comprise just 13%, black people are statistically more likely to be shot and killed by law enforcement officers; multiple scientific studies have proven that racial animus is not a factor in this disparity.

The most recent, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019, found “no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,” and instead determined that “race-specific county-level violent crime strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot.”

In other words, it is the violent crime rate of a given race—not race itself—that determines the likelihood a member of that race will be shot and killed by a law enforcement officer.

For instance, although blacks comprise just 13% of the US population, they accounted for 53% of the murder and non-negligent manslaughter arrests in 2018 (the most recent year for which FBI crime data is available), 54% of all robbery arrests, and 37% of all violent crime arrests.  Whites, on the other hand, comprise 76% of the population but made up just 44% of the murder and non-negligent manslaughter, 43% of the robbery, and 59% of the total violent crime arrests.

Since victims of and witnesses to violent crimes are invariably the ones who report them to police—and since victims are almost always of the same race as the perpetrator—police officer racism is not a factor in the wide disparity of arrests.

In Milwaukee, for instance, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s homicide tracker has recorded 890 total murders in the city since the beginning of 2015.  A staggering 79% of the victims are black.  In 2021, that percentage has jumped to 91%, as 31 of the 34 people killed in Milwaukee as of this writing were black.

The unfortunate reality is that just as blacks are statistically far more likely to be the victims of homicide or other violent crimes, they are also statistically more likely to commit violent crimes that would bring them into conflict with a law enforcement officer with his or her gun drawn.

0.0016% of all people who encountered a law enforcement officer in 2019 were killed by one.

This, not racism, is the reason for the disparity in police shootings.  How else could one explain this statistical anomaly: Since 2015, law enforcement officers have shot and killed 168 unarmed white people, 135 unarmed black people, and…just 74 unarmed Hispanic people.

Are police officers less racist against Hispanics than they are against blacks?  Or is it that while Hispanics account for 17% of the total US population, they represent 21% of the murder arrests and 25% of the total violent crime arrests—statistics that are more in line with their representation in the general population.

In 2015, the Obama Justice Department studied the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of force and determined that white officers were less likely to shoot an unarmed black suspect than were either black or Hispanic officers.

Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer, meanwhile, “didn’t find racial differences in officer-involved shootings” when he studied 1,399 of them in California, Texas, Florida, Colorado, and Washington from 2000 to 2015.

“In addition, from Houston only in those same years, we had reports describing situations in which gunfire might have been justified by department guidelines but the cops didn’t shoot,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year.  “This is a key piece of data that popular online databases don’t include.

“No matter how we analyzed the data, we found no racial differences in shootings overall, in any city in particular, or in any subset of the data.”

The widespread belief that there are, then, is largely a function of media and political mythmaking.  So too is the notion that law enforcement officers are in general far too trigger-happy.  In a given year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 61.5 million people have at least one contact with a law enforcement officer.  In 2019, the FBI reports that “law enforcement made an estimated 10,085,207 arrests.”

Not only are incidents in which officers use force exceedingly rare and often result in mild or no injuries, incidents in which force is even threatened are also very infrequent.

999 people were shot and killed by officers that year.  That means that a microscopic 0.0099% of people who might have otherwise been arrested in 2019 were shot and killed by an officer.  It also means that an even more vanishingly small 0.0016% of all people who encountered a law enforcement officer in 2019 were killed by one.

Research published in 2018 in The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery analyzed the use of force “at three mid-sized police agencies over a two-year period” and found that “there were 893 use-of-force incidents, representing a use-of-force rate of 0.086% of 1,041,737 calls for service and 0.78% of 114,064 criminal arrests.”  Additionally, “among 914 suspects, 898 (98%) sustained no or mild injury after police use of force.”

Not only are incidents in which officers use force exceedingly rare and often result in mild or no injuries, incidents in which force is even threatened are also very infrequent.  Just 2% of the 61.5 million people who had at least one contact with police in 2018 reported either the use or threat of force by the officer.

To get a fuller picture of just how rare officer-involved shootings are, it is helpful to remember how much more frequently they used to occur.  In New York City in the early 1970s, police officers killed an average of 72 people per year (including a whopping 93 in 1971 alone).  In 2020, just 19 people were shot and killed by law enforcement officers in all of New York State, and every single one of them was armed.

94% of the 6,211 people who have been killed by police officers in America since the beginning of 2015 were armed in some way.  58% of them were armed with a gun.  75% were armed with a gun or knife.  87% were armed with a gun, knife, some other weapon, or were using a vehicle they were driving as a weapon.

Nearly every single person police officers have shot and killed since The Washington Post started its comprehensive database has been armed, yet the popular misconception persists that law enforcement is killing unarmed black men at a staggering rate.

Only 2% of the total victims of deadly police shootings over the past six years were unarmed black men.  91% of the black men killed by police officers since 2015 were armed.  62% were armed with a gun.  75% were armed with a gun or knife.  86% were armed with a gun, knife, some other weapon, or were using a vehicle they were driving as a weapon.

The evidence could not possibly be clearer: Policing in America is not systemically racist and police officers do not because of personal racial bias shoot and kill black men.  Nearly every single one of the more than 6,000 people (of all races) killed by law enforcement officers in recent years was armed.

The evidence could not possibly be clearer: Policing in America is not systemically racist and police officers do not because of personal racial bias shoot and kill black men.  Nearly every single one of the more than 6,000 people (of all races) killed by law enforcement officers in recent years was armed.  Far fewer than a hundredth of a percent of the tens of millions of people who have an encounter with a police officer each year will be killed by one.

The vanishingly small number who are are almost all armed, reaching for a weapon, violently resisting officers, or acting in a way that put’s another person’s life at risk.  The very nature of policing itself places officers in contact with some of society’s most dangerous people, and occasionally they must take a life in order to save another.

Yes, in some cases—as in the Brooklyn Center officer who apparently mistook her firearm for a Taser—they do make mistakes and they must be held accountable for them, with professional discipline or even criminal charges.

Given the sheer volume of contacts law enforcement has with the public in a given year, though, as well as the fact that all of the available scientific research disproves the myth that white officers shoot black or Hispanic suspects because of racial animus, it is the height of irresponsibility for both media and political leaders to claim that policing is, as Congresswoman Tlaib put it, “inherently and intentionally racist.”

We don’t, as MSNBC’s Jason Johnson claimed, “need to abolish American policing as it currently exists” because policing is not, as Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez asserted, an “indefensible system that grants impunity for state violence.”

These are worse than myths; they are ignorant, irresponsible lies easily disproven by years’ worth of evidence.