How Much of a Factor Is Race When Cops Kill?

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

A reader, Charles Black, ventures into fraught territory, and my colleague Conor responds below:

I’ve become a regular reader over the past several months. I’m looking forward to the new Notes section. And I want to point out some facts about police shootings and crime rates that a couple of your authors seem unaware of.

In this Atlantic piece from May, the author cites a ProPublica study claiming that blacks are 21 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. That study—“Deadly Force, In Black and White”—has been thoroughly discredited in separate work by criminologist Peter Moskos and RealClearPolicy editor Robert VerBruggen. Even criminologist David Klinger, who was consulted by the ProPublica study’s authors, has accused them of cherry picking the data and said the study “needs to be shut down.”

So that study should only be referenced to point out how bad it is. But the question remains: Are blacks more likely than whites to be killed by police? When you account for the much higher violent crime rates among blacks, the answer, given the best current evidence, appears to be no.

Moskos, Verbruggen, and Hassert have all done simple analyses that are slightly different, and they tend to show that blacks are killed by police a little less than expected, given their higher rates of violent crime.

Certainly, more sophisticated research could be done and may reveal a more nuanced story. But much of the alarmist rhetoric from activists and much media appears to be unfounded: We may have a police brutality problem, but the police are applying it “equitably” in response to crime—so the best evidence suggests.

I don’t deny that African Americans continue to be discriminated against in many areas of American society. I even think that the evidence shows that police discriminate against blacks for smaller offenses. But the assertion that blacks are being discriminated against in the application of deadly force by police doesn’t have much to stand on at present.

So to some extent, Conor Friedersdorf is wrong when he writes that “blacks are disproportionately victimized.” And obviously if “the problem of violent crime is longstanding and universally acknowledged,” as he claims, then media wouldn’t repeatedly release articles talking about racial disparities in killings by police, never mentioning the large gap in violent crime rates. Such an omission misleads the public.

I’m guessing this issue is too taboo for The Atlantic to take on directly—even if you are of no party or clique:)  But I would love to see some debate on this issue—perhaps in the new Notes section?

Conor’s response:

The reader refers to my claim that black Americans are disproportionately victimized by “deadly abuses and incompetence.” He counters that “blacks are killed by police a little less than expected, given their higher rates of violent crime.” I don’t share his expectations.

If all abusive or incompetent police killings occurred while officers were responding to violent crimes or arresting violent criminals his intuition would make more sense. But many police killings have little if anything to do with violent crimes––and this is even more true of abusive or incompetent police killings, which I focus on in my work and are the subject of my claim. Think of all the violent crimes that take place without any police intervention. Now think of all the mentally ill people who are killed by the police and every officer-involved killing you’ve seen or read about that began during a routine traffic stop when the only crime was a minor infraction. What have those killings to do with the racial breakdown of violent criminals? And yet the reader doesn’t adjust for them.

It’s telling, in my view, that racial disparities in police killings seem to exist not just for the total number people killed, but also the subcategory of unarmed people killed by police. Consider 2015. The Washington Post reports that police have killed 60 unarmed people so far this year––and that 40 percent of them were black men, “even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population… black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.”

Not all shootings of unarmed people are unjustified.

Still, it would seem difficult to explain away the fact that unarmed black men are killed at 7 times the rate of unarmed white men by pointing to higher violent crime rates. And the difficulty is underscored by recalling specific cases. Freddie Gray was not a violent criminal. He was stopped illegally by Baltimore police. And he was killed while handcuffed and in custody, not in a violent altercation. Officer Michael Slager shot an unarmed black motorist in the back as he ran away during a routine traffic stop for a non-functioning brake light. Tamir Rice, a black child in a park with a toy gun, was killed the instant police arrived on the scene. Eric Garner was killed in a choke-hold after being caught selling loose cigarettes. Ray Tensing is facing murder charges for shooting an unarmed black motorist during a traffic stop. Those black individuals shouldn’t have been more likely to be killed by police while unarmed because other black individuals are committing violent crimes–– they had a Constitutional right and moral claim to be treated as individuals.

What would it take for me to peg my expectations about police killings to the violent crime rates of different racial groups? Persuasive evidence that the violent criminals and the people that police officers kill are the same people. As best I can tell, assuming that sameness is unfounded.

Your thoughts? Email hello@theatlantic.com, especially if you have empirical data to point to.