Better Data Brings Insight Into Police Killings, Crime in America

June 22, 2020 Updated: June 22, 2020

News Analysis

After major protests and riots around the country were sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, during arrest in Minneapolis, some commentators have brought forward with renewed intensity the argument that police are killing black people disproportionately out of racial bias.

While this argument isn’t new, America’s understanding has been enriched with better data on the issue in recent years.

The Washington Post has been tallying police killings since 2015, and the numbers have remained relatively stable—around 1,000 a year.

Among those incidents where the race of those killed was known, about 30 percent were black and some 47 percent were white in 2019.

Because there are roughly five times more whites than blacks in the United States, the data shows black people were killed at more than three times the rate of white people.

The ratio has been relatively stable since 2015, with the exception of 2019, when the likelihood of a black person being killed increased by about 23 percent. In 2020, so far, the ratio has dropped back again by roughly the same amount.

It is thus true that black people are more likely to be killed by police than white people.

The typical counterargument is that black people run afoul of the law more often, have more encounters with police, and thus get killed by police more often.

The argument is backed up with the following crime data:

In 2018, blacks were more than 3.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested for violent crimes, according to data most police departments submit to the FBI. The complete 2019 data hasn’t been released yet.

The problem with the FBI data is that it doesn’t consider Hispanic people as a race, but instead introduces them in a separate category—ethnicity. The vast majority of Hispanics are classified as White-Hispanic and a small portion as Black-Hispanic.

Based on the FBI data, 25 percent of people arrested for violent crimes were Hispanic (among cases where the ethnicity was reported). If these are disentangled from the black and white people data, non-Hispanic blacks were more than 5 times more likely to get arrested for a violent crime than non-Hispanic whites in 2018.

Black people were also more than 10 times more likely to be arrested for murder than white people in 2018, again excluding Hispanics.

The numbers are yet more striking in some major cities.

St. Louis police reported 209 black and 10 white murder suspects in 2017-2018 (pdf). That means black people were more than 55 times more likely to be murder suspects than white people.

New York City police reported 62.4 percent of murder suspects were black and 3 percent were white in 2019 (pdf). That means a black person was more than 27 times more likely to be a murder suspect than a white person.

In Chicago, 931 blacks and 44 whites were arrested for murder in the period of 2014-2017. That means blacks were nearly 23 times more likely to be arrested for murder than whites.

Targeted for Arrests?

A counterargument is that blacks are targeted by police and thus get arrested more often.

Available data doesn’t appear to support such a notion.

Black people are nearly 30 percent more likely to be identified as offenders than they are to be arrested for an offense, based on 2018 FBI data supplied by more than 6,800 police departments covering over 100 million of the United States population.

The data does go the other way on homicide, where blacks are about 2.3 percent more likely to be arrested than they are to be identified as the offender.

Some of the largest police departments, such as those in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, don’t provide this data to the FBI.

Checking the local data for New York City, black people were less likely to be arrested than they were to be identified as offenders in every reported crime category in 2019. The difference was most notable in grand and petty theft, where blacks were 17 percent and 20 percent respectively more likely to be identified as suspects than they were to be arrested.

Chicago and Los Angeles departments don’t provide this specific data set.

Unarmed

Another claim is that police particularly tend to kill black unarmed suspects.

First off, police don’t tend to kill unarmed people, the Washington Post data indicates.

In 2019, the data shows 55 such cases, less than 6 percent of people killed by police that year.

Of those, 14 were black and 25 white. That means unarmed blacks were nearly 3 times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed whites when accounting for the proportion of the population of blacks to whites. This racial gap was nearly 10 percent smaller than the one for police killings overall.

Because police killings of unarmed people are so rare, the data has virtually no relevance on the national level because most police officers never kill anybody in their entire careers, not to mention somebody who is unarmed.

There are roughly 900,000 police officers in America. If their average career spans 20 years, then only about 2 percent of them will ever kill a person while on duty. About 0.14 percent on average ever kill somebody who is unarmed.

In 2016, Harvard economist Roland Fryer published a paper analyzing police shootings for racial bias.

Fryer’s team scoured police reports of the shootings that happened between 2000 and 2015 in Dallas, Austin, six Florida counties, Houston, and Los Angeles and identified 65 factors to detail the circumstances of each incident. Was the suspect armed? With what weapon? Did the suspect attack the officers? Why were the officers called in the first place? Were the officers predominantly white, or black, or Hispanic? In many cases, a report describing one incident would be over 50 pages long.

After controlling for all the different circumstances, Fryer found that officers were less likely to shoot at black people than at white people in similar situations. The difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Fryer also looked for bias against unarmed suspects. He checked whether white officers were more likely than black officers to shoot at black unarmed suspects. They were not.

“The only statistically significant differences by race demonstrate that black officers are more likely to shoot unarmed whites, relative to white officers,” said the paper, updated in 2018 (pdf).

Fryer discovered something else, though. Black people were more likely to be the target of police non-lethal force, such as being thrown against a wall or pushed to the ground.

Based on New York City police stop-and-frisk data, blacks had force used against them about 14-20 percent more often than whites in circumstances that were similar based on available details.

This data looked at events as described by the police. Fryer also looked from the other side, using a 2011 national survey of people’s interactions with police. This data showed black people were 24-31 percent more likely to have non-lethal force used against them in similar circumstances based on available details.

Fryer hypothesized that discrimination against black people is “taste-based”—some officers tend to be rougher with black suspects, but desist when it comes to more serious, lethal use of force.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the population proportion between white and black people. There are roughly five times more white people than black people in the United States.

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