My colleague Adrienne wrote a post last week about the efforts of various online groups and publications—namely The Washington Post and The Guardian—to create a running tally of the number of Americans killed by police officers. Her post begins:
It wasn’t until recently that it became easy to find a number to go with the gruesome reality that black people—and black men in particular—live with every day: the ever-present threat of police violence. Police officers fatally shot nearly 1,000 people last year, according to The Washington Post’s ongoing count. Halfway through 2016, police have shot and killed 506 more. “Unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire,” the Post wrote last year.
Below is a lengthy reader dissent from Nick Selby, a Texas police detective and lead author of the new book In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians. Adrienne gave the go-ahead to post Selby’s response:
With respect to Adrienne LaFrance’s “Death by Police,” there are some serious structural problems with the data on which she bases much of her analysis. I don’t for one second believe she is intentionally manipulative, but I do want to point out, as with most things in law enforcement (the one place where Occam’s Razor does not apply), these numbers are not as straightforward as they might appear.
Some of the contextual issues from the piece that should be clarified are around The Washington Post’s numbers, because in the way they are quoted by Ms. LaFrance, they only tell half the story. It is undoubtedly true that newspaper’s Fatal Force study showed that, by the end of 2015, U.S. police had fatally shot 986 people (it was later raised to a total of 990). That number sounds truly terrible given Ms. LaFrance’s apparent inference that the 990 people were innocently going about their day when the police killed them. That is, of course, not the case. Yet Ms. LaFrance implies that it is. “In one in five fatal shootings,” she writes, “the names of the police officer responsible is never disclosed. Even when they are, many officers face no consequences.”
As a police detective who has intensely studied this issue, the underlying datasets, and media efforts to count them, I must point out that the implication of that passage is based, at best, on a lack of understanding of the numbers. As my co-authors and I wrote in our book, that passage fails “to differentiate killings by police who are behaving badly from those in which cops were doing what we want them to do—that is, standing between civilians in danger of losing their lives and those who would take their lives from them.” I think that to tell readers of The Atlantic, who want to better understand the truly important questions about how Americans—especially non-white Americans—are being policed, it’s not helpful to imply (even unintentionally) that all police shootings are unjustified. We as citizens should not be as interested in police using appropriate force as we are in their inappropriate use of deadly force.
In an interview on this topic with David Krajicek of The Crime Report, I said: