Reporter's Notebook

When Cops Kill, How Much of a Factor Is Race?
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Below is our reader debate on the question, focusing on empirical data as much as possible. If you have anything to add, please email

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Another reader joins in:

I just read Nick Selby’s contribution to the thread, and one thing that jumped out at me was him citing how many cops had been indicted on charges related to civilian shootings this year. This reminded me of the Randall Kerrick case in Charlotte, NC, where Kerrick was on trial for voluntary manslaughter in the shooting of the college student Jonathan Ferrell, who was black. In August, the judge in the case declared a mistrial, and they’re not going to seek to retry the case. (Just as a reminder, this was the case where Ferrell was in a bad car accident, knocked on a woman’s door, she called the police, and when he ran up to the police when they arrived, he was shot and killed.)

Although this is just one case, it complicates many of the elements Nick Selby refers to in order to argue against race being a factor in getting killed by the cops.

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*.

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.