Here, in alphabetical order, is a short list of objects. What do they have in common?
ax baseball bat baton bayonet brick broken glass car chain saw crossbow crowbar flashlight garden tool gun hammer hand torch hatchet knife machete meat cleaver metal pipe motorcycle oar pick-axe piece of wood pitchfork pole rock scissors screwdriver shovel spear sword Taser tire iron
According to the Washington Post database, in 2016 there were nine hundred and sixty-three civilians killed by the police, with all but four percent of them being men. That list above enumerates all of the different kinds of weapons that those people were carrying at the time of their death.
Tragically, at the time of their death, some five percent of them were unarmed … but of course in most cases that wasn’t known until after their death.
Equally tragically, at the time of their death, another five percent of them were carrying replica weapons … again not known until after their death. Many of these replicas, sold as toys by the millions, are indistinguishable from the real thing, particularly in the heat of the moment.
Here is a breakdown of the numbers of each type of weapons carried:
Figure 1. Pie chart of the number and type of weapons possessed by the civilians killed by police in 2016. “Edged/pointed” includes knives, pitchforks, swords, spears, and the like.
I bring this up so that we can all appreciate the context of the interactions that ended in the deaths of these 963 individuals at the hands of the police. By and large, these deaths occurred in the context of an arrest of an armed, violent individual. This means that whenever the police are arresting someone for a violent crime, for pure self-preservation the officers have to assume that the person being arrested is armed.
The inherent violent possibilities of the arrest process also account for most of the fifty-one police officers killed in the line of duty in 2016. However, in addition to those fifty-one officers who died by arrest-related violence, in 2016 there were also a shocking twenty-one police officers killed in deliberate ambushes. This is a worrisome trend. I can certainly understand why cops are on edge and nervous … and edgy, nervous cops are not good for the body politic.
Now with that context of arrests gone bad and split-second decisions made rightly or wrongly, and with compassion for the policewomen and men who have to make those hard decisions, let’s look at what the police are accused of. The most common accusation leveled against the police is that they are killing an unduly high percentage of black people. To investigate this claim, here’s a look at how many people died in 2016 for every 10,000 people of the same race or sex who were arrested for violent crimes in 2016. In addition to the Washington Post data linked to above, I’ve used data from the FBI Crime In The US 2016 report, in particular the arrest data in Table 21A.
Figure 2. Deaths by race or sex, for every ten thousand arrests of people of that same race or sex for crimes of violence. The FBI definition of crimes of violence is used—murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and rape.
To understand this graphic, let’s start with the left two columns. We see that for every ten thousand men arrested for violent crimes, thirty men died at the hands of the police. And by contrast, for every ten thousand women arrested for violent crimes, only five women died at the hands of the police.
Does this show that the US police are sexists who are prejudiced against men?
Of course not. It means that when cornered by the cops, men are far more likely to indulge in fight/flight than are women … with the predictable results. Men are killed by the cops at a far higher rate than are women.
Moving on to the next two columns depicted in gray, the first one shows that for every ten thousand white people arrested for violent crimes, there were twenty-eight white people killed by police. And for every ten thousand black people arrested for violent crimes, sixteen black people were killed by police.
Now, to me this makes sense. Violent white guys I’ve known tend to think that they are bullet-proof. The evidence says that black guys are more cautious around the cops, and wisely so. And as a result, white guys are killed by cops at a greater rate than black guys.
It also agrees with the analysis I did a year ago of the 2015 data, which I detailed in a post called When Arrests Go Bad. Just as had occurred in 2015, once again in 2016 white men were killed at a higher rate by the police than were black men. This indicates that it was not a mere anomaly.
Next, I want to be clear what this analysis does and does not mean. In short, it means what it says and nothing else. As one example among many, it doesn’t address the issue of people of color getting stopped for “DWB”, Driving While Black.
Is there still racial animus and hatred in the US? Of course. When I was a boy, it was illegal in several US states for white and black people to marry. Isn’t that bizarre? Illegal. That kind of fear and bitterness doesn’t disappear in one lifetime. This analysis doesn’t change that.
Nor does this mean that the cops are either saints or sinners. Cops are not the other—they are us, with all of our faults and virtues. Some cops are assuredly racist thugs … just like us. But for the most part, again like us, they are just fools whose intentions are good. They are called on to make life-and-death decisions literally in split seconds.
And yes, just like us, sometimes the police get it wrong. But to their credit, there is no evidence that police are targeting black people for death. Quite the opposite. The data clearly shows that black people are being killed by police at a lower rate than are white people.
Now, I know that this doesn’t fit the current narrative, which claims that there are heaps of racist cops out there murdering black men at a rate of knots … I can only tell you what the facts are, and the facts absolutely falsify that narrative.
Finally, let me say that any death at the hands of the police is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the police officer. In my previous post linked above I discussed some of the ways that the police might reduce that number of deaths.
But the police can’t do it all, or even most of it. The number one way to reduce police shootings, of course, is for everyone to do what my mom told me, to do what every responsible mom tells every son—“If you are stopped by the police, be polite, do what they tell you, and don’t resist arrest”.
Simple advice, but if everyone took it the number of people killed by cops would go way, way down.
Here, we have late summer sunshine this afternoon, now that the morning ocean fog has burnt off. The cat is discussing matters of mortality with the local insect population, he loves chasing and eating bugs. I’ve often wondered just how much protein he gets from the exercise. What a world, where life eats life to live …
Best of this lovely life to all,