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At The Federalist: Let’s Look at the Actual Facts About Alleged Racism of Police

8 Jun , 2020  

Dr. John Lott has a piece on the claims about systematic racism by police at the Federalist.

Police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of a black man, George Floyd, this past week launched protests and riots across the country. Despite there being no evidence yet that the officer was racist, it is simply assumed that racism motivated the white cop’s abusive actions.

Law enforcement officers can be careless or abusive without being racist. In Dallas, in 2016, a white man died after being arrested in the exact same way. The officers joked about the man being asleep, but he had actually died after pleading for help “more than 30 times.” 

On Fox News Sunday this past weekend, host Chris Wallace mentioneda handful of cases that he thought showed a racist pattern. He pointed to Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot dead by a retired police officer in February while out jogging in Georgia. He also mentioned a recent disturbingincident in New York’s Central Park, where a white woman who was walking her dog called police to report that she was being threatened by “an African-American man.” The man simply told her that the law requires her to keep her dog on a leash.

One recalls the nationwide riots after the Michael Brown “Hands up, don’t shoot”eventually admittedto be a myth.

The media have helped create a biased perception that is far from the reality of shootings by police. In a study, the Crime Prevention Research Center (where I serve as president) found that when a white officer kills a suspect, the media usually mention the race of the officer. When the officer is black any news coverage rarely mentions the race of the officer.

And there’s evidence that blacks aren’t really all that fed up with police. A July 2017 Quinnipiac University poll in New York City found that blacks strongly support the cops in their own neighborhoods — 62 percent approved compared to just 35 percent who disapproved. That approval rating was 11 percent higher than for the New York City Police Department as a whole. It makes sense that people only know their local cops, but rely on media reports to form impressions about theparts of thecity they are less familiar with.

Through extensive research, we found 2,699 police shootings across the nation from 2013-2015. That’s far more than the FBI found, since its data is limited to only 1,366 cases voluntarily provided by police departments.

The FBI data has other problems, too: It disproportionately includes cases from heavily minority areas, giving a misleading picture of the frequency at which blacks are shot.

Our database keeps track of characteristics of both the suspect and the officer involved in each shooting, local violent crime rates, demographics of the city and police department, and many other factors that help determine what causes police shootings.

Officers kill Blacks at a higher rate than their share of the population: 25 percent of the suspects killed were black, 45 percent white, and 16 percent Hispanic. But that isn’t true where the deaths are occurring. Black suspects tend to die in heavily black larger cities with populations averaging over 600,000 (overwhelmingly run by Democrats), while whites are killed in smaller cities with an average population of 250,000. 

White suspects were slightly more likely to be holding a firearm than blacks (63% to 61%). Black and white suspects where both equally likely to be involved in violent crime when they lose their lives, though blacks who died were more likely to be involved in drug or property offenses. But police generally have more challenging jobs in cities where blacks are killed.The average city where blacks are killed had a61 percent higher violent crime rate and 126percent highermurder rate than where the average white was killed.

After accounting for these and other factors, including the average differences across police departments to deal cultural differences in departments, we found that black officers were at least as likely as their white peers to kill black suspects, but that black officers were more likely to kill unarmed blacks than were white officers.

The data offered some advice for reducing these attacks. While it can’t explain all instances such as George Floyd’s case, usually when more police are present at the scene of a confrontation with a civilian, suspects face reduced odds of being killed. For each additional officer, there is about a 14 to 18 percent reduction in the suspect’s chances of being killed. 

Officers feel more vulnerable if they are alone at the scene, making them more likely to resort to deadly force. Also, suspects may be emboldened and resist arrest when fewer officers are present.  

It is a dangerous fiction that prejudiced white officers are going out and disproportionately killing black men. But that doesn’t mean that measures can’t be taken to reduce shootings by police. The most obvious step would be to increase the number of officers, in an effort to avoid forcing lone, vulnerable officers to make life-or-death decisions.

John R. Lott, Jr., “Let’s Look at the Actual Facts About Alleged Racism of Police,” The Federalist, Monday, June 8, 2020.

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5 Responses

  1. […] John Lott talked to Steve Gruber on the Michigan Talk Network about our research testing whether there is racism by police. They also discussed Lott’s piece at Real Clear Politics on how what happened to Senator Tom […]

  2. Donald W Bohlken says:

    Have some words been left out of this sentence: “After accounting for these and other factors, including the average differences across police departments to deal cultural differences in departments, we found that black officers were at least as likely as their white peers to kill black suspects, but that black officers were more likely to kill unarmed blacks than were white officers.” “Average [what kind? racial composition?] differences across police departments to deal [with?] cultural differences in departments”

    The lack of racial bias in police killings is also consistent with the studies at:

    https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/701423 (which is also published elsewhere as a working paper) and https://www.pnas.org/content/116/32/15877

    Keep up the good work! I submitted a guest essay, refuting the stereotype that police are racists seeking to kill unarmed blacks, to the Des Moines Register. Usually I at least get an acknowledgement by email. Didn’t even get that this time!

  3. Prior to being notified of your study, I submitted a guest essay to the Des Moines Register addressing the myth that police are hunting down and shooting Black people. The essay is at: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2020/06/29/police-and-racism-what-statistics-show-stereotypes/3274391001/

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