This will be the first of many posts on police violence as well as police discrimination. It is a complicated topic, widely distorted on social media and in the media. You will read on Facebook that the police are untrained, wildly racist, and spend most of their time shooting innocent people of color for sport. The news media fans the flames, of course, since it generates great viewership.
Reality is different.
Before we delve into data, let’s lay some ground work.
Like the rest of the population:
- There are racist police.
- There are incompetent police.
- There are crooked police.
I am not going to try to prove otherwise.
Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men (or is it)
This is a widely quoted statement on social media. In fact, it is the leading line of a paper in the National Academy of Sciences.
Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.
Clearly we should abolish the police as quickly as possible if we want to save the youth of our nation, right? (In a later post I will explain why this is a terrible idea.)
The article is well written, factual, and carries a lot of statistics within. It is, however, important to look at the article with the omitted context.
Context part 1
One of the data points from the article is the following:
Police use of force is responsible for 1.6% of all deaths involving black men between the ages of 20 y and 24 y.
To understand some context, first we need to ask, is there anything special about the age range selected?
If we look at the details in the report we see the chart that follows. 1.6% is the peak. It is also a peak with a very high slope … that is, the rate drops heavily on either side of the peak. It is good that the paper includes the chart since it doesn’t write about this point.
The paper notes that the killing rate seems associated with age and gender. This is consistent with the lede line of the paper that says police killings are a leading cause of deaths of young men.
The paper does not look at what might be the driver for these death rates or whether action’s of the young men put them at higher risk.
If we turn to the FBI data on crime, we see that crime rates also peak at the age group 20-24 as you can see in the chart below. (I built the chart from the data, and matched the axes range.) You might not be surprised to note that the rate of police killings correlates nicely with the rate of crime.
Historically violent crimes are more likely to be committed by men and the amount of crime peaks during the 15-35 year age range, the same curve we see for the rate of killings by police.
Underlying causes include a mix of biology (e.g. testosterone levels and prefrontal cortex immaturity), socialization and economic opportunity. The book Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology has an excellent chapter on age rates and crime and shows data from various periods of time, various countries, and across racial lines.
Is this the leading cause of death?
The PNAS article states that police killings are a leading cause of death for young men. This is true-ish, but there is a big difference between a leading cause of death (as claimed by the article) and the leading cause of death (as assumed by many who quote the article). From the article we see, as just discussed, that at its peak, police killings represent 1.6% of deaths. What about the other 98.4%?
For this we turn to the CDCs report on causes of death, broken out by race and age. For 20-24 year old black men (see page 34 of the link), we see the top 10 causes of death:
Note that Other is a combination of various causes and, if not treated as a catch all, would appear as the number 4 cause (pushing Police to the 11th slot).
It is easier to see this in a pie chart:
Note that the CDC puts police killings (what they call Legal intervention) at .6% and the PNAS article at 1.6%. I don’t know how PNAS derived their data. The relative sizes are clear regardless.
Police killings of black men age 20-24 is in the top 10 single cause list, coming in either between cancer and HIV or just below genetic and congenital diseases depending on whether you take the CDC number or the PNAS number, and as long as you get rid of the Other category. The article seems to use that as meaning leading.
If we use the CDC data as the source of truth, a black man aged 20-24 is 78.5x more likely (inflammatory media would say 78500%) to die from homicide and 40x more likely to die from an accident than from police violence.
If we compare to white men of similar age, we have different causes of death:
When you look at men across all ages, the differences reduce, with old age related diseases dominating, In short, black men and white men, for the most part, die from old age, and from similar causes:
|High blood pressure||1.6|
Homicide does not show up for white men as a top 10 cause of death and suicide does not show up for black men as a top 10 cause of death.
Police killings only show up in the top 10 list for black men for the ages 15-24, and at 0.6% for both of those age ranges. The PNAS conclusion is only valid for these two specific age ranges (15-19 and 20-24) and only based on a potentially deceptive definition of leading.
Should police stop shooting people?
Because the press focuses only on the small number of killings of unarmed men, it is easy to assume that is representative and that the majority of killings by police are unjustified. Of the .6% (or 1.6% from PNAS) of black men 20-24 killed by the police, how many were for situations in which those shot were committing violent crimes and thus put themselves at risk of being shot by police?
If we go to the Washington Post database of police shootings, we see that for 2020, there have been 55 black men, aged 18-29, who have been shot by the police. 4 of those were unarmed. (Breonna Taylor is the lone unarmed female in the data set.) Of these 4, 2 were in the process of violent crimes against women. For armed people, I didn’t look at all of linked news articles, but of the ones I sampled there was either little information or the people involved were committing violent crimes.
Using the ratio from above, we would expect roughly 95% of the police killings to be justified. Let us assume with better deescalation we could get to 75%. That would say that out of the 0.6 – 1.6% of police killings, approximately .15% – .4% of deaths of black men could be avoided if we focus on police violence.
That is miniscule compared to other causes. If we could reduce suicide by 25% we’d save 70x or more lives than reducing police shootings by 25%.
Ideally we would reduce all causes of unnatural death.
What Story Do We Tell?
Although there are many ways we can look at this data, there are two common themes I see on social media, both with problems.
Police like to kill young men of color. It is a leading cause of death for young black men and thus we need to abolish or defund the police.
The amount of people killed by police versus homicide is so small that we shouldn’t even talk about it. Black neighborhoods need to get control of their young men before they blame police.
Story 1 is flawed
Pushing this narrative leads to a war on police. This could be a factor in the ambush of two sheriffs in Los Angeles, followed by protesters at the hospital calling for the police to die. That is hardly a vision for America. It is based on an emotional narrative, fanned by the media, that builds on truth but excludes so much data that it is highly dangerous.
The Factual Side
The narrative builds on a number of points.
There are undeniable incidents where people are killed by the police and clearly should not be. This is not restricted to black men and white police. For example Justine Ruszczyk was shot by a black police officer after she called 911 to report a potential assault by her house. Tamir Rice was 12-year old black boy killed by a white police officer after playing with a toy gun.
Of course there are many others, and the media heavily focuses on black men killed by white police officers. (In a later post we will talk about one reason why, by looking at the nuisance arrest to jail pipeline to which black men are subjected.)
If you see people who look or act like you or your friends being killed, it is impossible not to be upset, especially when it seems like the same stories repeat themselves year after year without any improvements.
There are high profile cases of white criminals (such as Dylan Roof) who are not killed by police and high profile cases of low level black criminals who are killed by police.
There is a long history of racism in the justice system. The KKK, for example, was intertwined with the justice system in the South, as discussed in numerous articles and books, including the recent Race Against Time (a fast, approachable read) or Beneath a Ruthless Sun. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery by a former police officer further illustrates what certainly seems to be a problem of racism in the police force today.
Police are entrusted to enact force on behalf of society, and as such, they have a high standard they need to maintain. We expect more restraint and judgment than we do from criminals.
Police have incentives not to kill people. They risk their lives and careers, will be subjected to investigations and law suits, and will have enormous amounts of paper work. While there are exceptions, it seems unlikely that most police officers would ignore these barriers.
The press does not cover the good actions by police officers — the violent criminals arrested or killed before they hurt innocent civilians — or the interventions that don’t end in violence. Good news does not sell as well as bad, and as a result, we have a very slanted view of what police do.
There is very little press attention or social media amplification for the overwhelming number of black men killed in homicides or due to suicide. This in itself is a tragedy, as so many victims die without notice. As you can see from the statistics, it is a monumental problem that scarcely gets any news, and the black community suffers without broader support. I would suggest reading the excellent book An American Summer to get a sense of this tragedy.
Story 2 is flawed
Story 2 is also flawed.
Let’s look at the cause of death for black men aged 20-24 again, but this time removing the causes over which the victim has little agency.
We will do the same for white men aged 20-24:
Which of these conditions would you tell a grieving parent they should ignore? A death of a child is a death of a child.
While police violence is dwarfed by the other causes of death, there is no reason to ignore it. At the same time, it should not be blown out of proportion and out of context, breeding hate, violence and misguided initiatives that will not solve real problems.
The next part to this argument is that the black community is ignoring the homicides and instead are blaming the police. We see plenty of examples of this, fanned by the media. Yet, what we don’t see in the press is discussion of the many organizations in the black community focused on reducing violence, such as Mothers Against Senseless Killings. Here is a list of many for Chicago. You will find similar organizations in every major city.
These organizations don’t get the press attention or the support they deserve. The media is distorting our view by underplaying the good done by police and the community and amplifying anti-police sentiment. As a result, the left feels like the police are a leading cause of death and the right feels like the black community isn’t trying to fix problems. Both are wrong.
And the leading killer of black men is?
Black men.. By a huge margin.
90% of homicides of black men are committed by black men.
If we leave HIV out of the list, and generously assume that 25% of the police shootings could be prevented, we get:
Roughly 52.5% of deaths of young black men are by young black men. That is 350x the roughly 0.15% avoidable police shootings. Even if the police never shoot black men, black men will die in large numbers.
Balancing the View
Imagine a world in which the media and social media focused on facts and how to use those to fix problems. For every police killing of a young black man we would have 78 stories about young black men killed by homicide, 17 by suicide, and stories about all of the lives saved by police. We’d also discuss police killed in the line of duty or by suicide. Along the way the coverage could feature one or more of the organizations working to reduce violence, reduce suicide, and improve police community relations. We could treat the victims as people, the communities as complex and hurting, and the police and citizens as people all in an interconnected web.
Or we could fan flames and sell more ads.