How Much of a Factor Is Race When Cops Kill? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Nick Selby, an Atlantic reader and police detective in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, responds to our earlier request for empirical data on the question posed above. His email is long and densely packed, highlighting some key points in the debate over police shootings—especially in the context of the tragic shooting in Baltimore County referenced below:

In his response to a letter from Charles Black, Conor Friedersdorf refers to a statistic quoted by The Washington Post that claimed, “Black males are seven-times-more-likely than white-males to die at the hands of police.” The data are there to be examined, but part of the issue that makes the math of that claim so dodgy is that the Post assumed black males are distributed equally around the United States—as if as many black males live in, say, Nebraska or Vermont as in, say, Florida or Mississippi.  Which they do not.

Another fatal flaw with this idea of using incidents in which police kill people to draw larger conclusions about race and justice in America is that it considers the wrong cohort. While Mr. Friedersdorf can and rightfully does point to the case of officers Michael Slager and Ray Tensing as being excellent examples of officers both apparently acting terribly and also lying about it—cases we wouldn’t have known about had there not been witness video—he points to these as evidence of the selection by police officers of black men to harass and ultimately to kill.

To those who have never served in or been trained in law enforcement or use-of-force, it is easy to see why the cases of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner look equally bad. So, let’s just assume that these deaths at the hands of police were just as baldly criminal, for the moment, as those of Walter Scott and Samuel DuBose.

Mr. Friedersdorf is correct that, in seeking potentially unjust killings, the segment of the Washington Post cohort of "all people shot by police" is too broad - one quite simply must look past the killings by police of armed people, to the killings by police of the unarmed*.

If you seek truly to highlight injustice, that is where to start. It is also important to note that the WaPo’s study selects only those who were shot and killed by police, not all those who died after a confrontation with police. In the StreetCred Police Killings in Context database, an open data set, we can see that, in the first eight months of 2015 there were 125 killings by police of unarmed people—including 69 who were shot. However, Mr. Friedersdorf conflates “unarmed” with “not dangerous.” As we will see below, it is flatly incorrect for him to state that “many police killings have little if anything to do with violent crimes.”

There were 53 unarmed black people, 45 white people and 20 Hispanic people who died after encounters with police (and yes, based on the national census figures, that would seem to be a statistically high sampling of black people even if they are not in the majority of all cases in the database). The issue, however, is in the concept of selection. The accusation is that police are systematically selecting black people to harass and confront. Yet, in fully 75 percent of the cases in the StreetCred Police Killings in Context database, officers arrived after a citizen-initiated call for service.

How could the police target these black people if the police are responding to calls from someone else? They cannot be.

Of 125 incidents in which police killed an unarmed civilian, 25 percent (31) began on traffic stops, but 65 percent (81) began as a response to a 911 call about a violent-crime (robbery, carjacking, domestic violence or assault) or property crime (burglary, car theft or vandalism) in progress. There were 9 people (7 percent) whom 911 callers described as being “crazy,” or “on drugs,” “covered with blood,” and “yelling,” or threatening people. Three people (2 percent) were  wanted fugitives in the act of escape — and one was unarmed when he died but was acting as part of a gang of three who were wanted in a recent homicide and were at the time of the incident in the progress of a kidnapping a woman.

There were 26 incidents that involved an assault against another civilian before police arrived, and in two cases, the murder of other civilians, by the decedent. So for Mr. Friedersdorf to portray these decedents as the innocent victims of police violence against black people, or to presume that they had no process, is a grotesque reading of the facts.

Let’s add to this the fact—and our methodology and sources are all available online, as is our data—that in general, in the 51 percent of cases in which there were witnesses, they generally sided with the police’s account. Specifically, in 60 cases (48 percent) within the StreetCred PKIC dataset, some or all witnesses supported the police account of events.

Witnesses exclusively supported the police account in 40 cases (32 percent), and some witnesses supported, and some disputed, the police account in 20 cases (16 percent).

Witnesses disputed the police in a total of 24 cases (19 percent). Witnesses exclusively disputed the police account in just 4 cases (3 percent). And some witnesses disputed, while others supported the police account, in 20 of the cases (16 percent).

Which means that when people see these incidents—as they do in a majority of the cases—they tend to side with the police’s version of events.

None of the people who die without cause or justification at the hands of police should die. The idea that officers are not punished is absurd. This year to date there have been indictments of ten officers in the killing of four black people, and one officer in the killing of a white person.

Perhaps the problem is that the police are being looked at as the cause of problems that are broadly societal and systemic in nature? Whatever is true, I say this: we stand at the greatest opportunity in my lifetime to positively change how police and communities interact. To waste it pointing fingers would be a true tragedy.  

* An unarmed person in our database is one who is not holding something that a reasonable person would perceive as a deadly weapon, including toy or replica guns. This would mean that the case this week in Baltimore County, in which a man overtly reached behind his back and snapped his hand forward in the same manner as one would use to “quick-draw” a concealed weapon would be considered, for the purposes of our research, armed.  It is important, too, to recognize that ‘unarmed’ does not mean, ‘Not deadly.’

Details on that shooting here. The following video of the fatal encounter is from surveillance footage taken from a local business, posted by the police department on Facebook:

Pct 3 Police-Involved Shooting 9-23-15

This 50-second clip is the critical portion of video evidence obtained by #BCoPD from a local business depicting the September 23 police-involved shooting in #Reisterstown. More information can be found on our news blog:

Posted by Official Baltimore County Police & Fire on Friday, September 25, 2015