The Truth About Police Violence and Race
Debunking the lies that justify rage and riots.
America is always just one George Floyd away from erupting into chaos. That's what has been made clear by the violent riots that turned Minneapolis and a number of other cities into war zones following Floyd’s death last Monday. The video footage of white police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee against the neck of a prostrate, handcuffed Mr. Floyd, is disturbing in the extreme. And indeed, it has been universally condemned by people along every point of the political spectrum. Chauvin has since been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Meanwhile, the three fellow officers who were with him at the scene have been fired from their jobs, and Floyd's death is now being investigated by the FBI and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. In short, the justice system is dealing with the matter in exactly the way that it should.
But the vital question we must address is this: Why is America always just one George Floyd away from anarchy? After all, outside of Paradise there will never exist a place where there won't occasionally be George Floyds – white, black, and every other color – who lose their lives needlessly and unjustifiably. It's called the human condition, and it's been around for a very long time.
Surely we can rage against that, as we may rage against any moral wrong. But what we have witnessed in the wake of Mr. Floyd's death is a rage directed not against a particular bad actor, but against what is perceived as an intransigent, generalized, all-pervasive evil. The angry mobs ravaging Minneapolis and other cities would have us believe that they are merely effecting a last-resort response to the fact that police abuse of blacks is an ongoing, all-too-common phenomenon throughout the United States. Desperate people must resort to desperate measures, they claim, when trying to shine the light of truth onto a dark reality. As one black protester told a reporter: “Nobody gives a f–k about us. OK? Unless we get violent. Y’all care about the s–t getting burned down, but what about when the KKK burning our s–t down?”
The American left, by and large, dutifully embraces this perspective, as evidenced by the many high-profile figures – white and black alike – who have written and spoken passionately about the George Floyd incident in social-media posts and elsewhere. Some examples:
- Minnesota Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar decried Floyd's death as “yet another horrifying and gutwrenching instance of an African American man dying.”
- Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said that the incident had “ripped open anew this ugly underbelly of our society.”
- Basketball star Lebron James posted side-by-side photographs of Officer Chavin with his knee on George Floyd's neck, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during a pre-game national anthem as a gesture of protest against police brutality and racial injustice. James added the caption: “This ... ... Is Why. Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you?? #StayWoke.”
- Basketball Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in an op-ed: “Just as the slimy underbelly of institutional racism is being exposed, it feels like hunting season is open on blacks…. Racism in America is … everywhere.”
- Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who produced the 2019 Netflix series When They See Us, which whitewashed the 1989 atrocities of the so-called “Central Park Five,” tweeted: “You [George Floyd] deserved your breath, your dignity, your life. Not to die in the street, murdered by a white cop’s knee on your neck. You deserve our tears, our prayers, our rage, our action.”
- Actress and producer Viola Davis lamented: “This is what it means to be Black in America. Tried. Convicted. Killed for being Black. We are dictated by hundreds of years of policies that have restricted our very existence and still have to continue to face modern day lynchings.”
- Actor/producer John Boyega tweeted: “This just burns. Seems to be a never ending cycle.”
- Model and actress Naomi Campbell wrote: “I don’t have the words. I’m sick and tired of this, tired of being sad about our people dying needlessly. Harassed and humiliated in these challenging times, I thought we could come to together, but it seems like this Coronavirus has bought out more racism in a major way.”
- Singer Demi Lovato tweeted: “This is not okay. And it will not stop until everyone does their part. Especially white people.... [U]ntil this STOPS COMPLETELY – THE BLACK COMMUNITY WILL CONTINUE TO LIVE IN DANGER.”
- A Washington Post opinion piece framed Mr. Floyd's death as “yet another reminder of how black people are killed by law enforcement in disproportionately high numbers.”
The singular theme that runs through every one of the statements cited above – and serves as the subtext of the riots and street protests – is the perception that what happened to George Floyd is emblematic of the type of brutality that police in America routinely, selectively, and disproportionately inflict upon black people. Thus, the vital question we must answer is whether or not that perception is founded in truth, or in fiction.
Over the course of many years, mountains of empirical evidence regarding this subject have been accumulated.
Some of the most comprehensive information we have comes from a 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report examining incidents where police in the United States used deadly force to kill criminal suspects between 1976 and 1998. During that 23-year span, 42% of all suspects killed by police were black – a figure that comported precisely with the percentage of violent crimes committed by African Americans during that same period. This is enormously significant because we would expect that in police forces not plagued by systemic racism, officers would shoot suspects of various racial or ethnic backgrounds at rates closely resembling their respective involvement in the types of serious crimes most likely to elicit the use of force by police. And indeed, that is exactly what the evidence shows.
Moreover, in nearly two-thirds of all justifiable homicides by police during 1976-98, the officer’s race and the suspect’s race were the same. When a white or Hispanic officer killed a suspect, that suspect was usually (63% of the time) white or Hispanic as well. And when a black officer killed a suspect, that suspect was usually black (81% of the time).
How about the rate at which officers killed suspects of other racial or ethnic backgrounds? In 1998, the “black-officer-kills-black-felon” rate was 32 per 100,000 black officers, more than double the rate at which white and Hispanic officers killed black felons (14 per 100,000). That same year, the rate at which white and Hispanic officers killed white or Hispanic felons (28 per 100,000) was much higher than the “black-officer-kills-white-or-Hispanic-felon” rate of 11 per 100,000.
In 1999, criminologists Geoffrey Alpert and Roger Dunham confirmed once again that police officers were more likely to use force against suspects of their own racial group, than against suspects from another racial group.
A 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics study which covered the period from 2003 to 2009 sheds further light on the issue of police use of force against people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Of all suspects who are known to have been killed by police during that 7-year time frame, 41.7% were white, 31.7% were black, and 20.3% were Hispanic. It is also worth noting that during the 2003-2009 period—when blacks were 31.7% of all suspects killed by an officer—blacks accounted for about 38.5% of all arrests for violent crimes, which are the types of crimes most likely to trigger potentially deadly confrontations with police. These numbers do not in any way suggest a lack of restraint by police in their dealings with black suspects. On the contrary, they strongly suggest exactly the opposite.
In 2015, a Justice Department study of the Philadelphia Police Department found that black officers were 67 percent more likely than their white colleagues to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black suspect, and Hispanic officers were 145 percent more likely to do the same. That same year, a study of the New York Police Department by criminology professor Greg Ridgeway found that black officers were 3.3 times more likely than their white peers to discharge their guns in the course of their work. So much for the notion of trigger-happy white cops.
In any given year, a mere 0.6 percent of black men report that physical force of any kind – including mild actions like pushing and grabbing – is used against them by the police. The corresponding figure for white men is approximately 0.2 percent. Though both figures are infinitesimally small, critics of the police are quick to complain that the figure for blacks is three times higher than the figure for whites. But as National Review points out, that disparity is fully accounted for by the fact that “black men commit violent crimes at much higher rates than white men,” as evidenced by data from the annual National Crime Victimization Survey.
Moreover, the available data indicate that a mere 0.08 percent of black men and white men alike are injured by police in any given year. This figure includes injuries sustained as a result of police actions that are legally justified, and often necessary, in order to thwart criminal behavior.
In a 2018 working paper titled “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is African American, reported that police officers in Houston were nearly 24 percent less likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects. In a separate analysis of officer shootings in three Texas cities, six Florida counties, and the city of Los Angeles, Fryer found that: (a) officers were 47 percent less likely to discharge their weapon without first being attacked if the suspect was black, than if the suspect was white; (b) black and white individuals shot by police were equally likely to have been armed at the time of the shootings; (c) white officers were no more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites; (d) black officers were more likely to shoot unarmed whites than unarmed blacks; and (e) black officers were more likely than white officers to shoot unarmed whites. There is no evidence of anti-black racism in any of these findings, though some of them do seem to suggest an anti-white bias.
A 2019 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that white officers are no more likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot black civilians. “In fact,” writes Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald, the study found that “if there is a bias in police shootings after crime rates are taken into account, it is against white civilians.” Specifically, Mac Donald adds, the authors of the study compiled a database of 917 officer-involved fatal shootings in 2015 and found that 55 percent of the victims were white, 27 percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic.
Each and every year, without exception, whites who are shot and killed by police officers in the U.S. far outnumber blacks and Hispanics who meet that same fate. In 2017, for instance, 457 whites, 223 blacks, and 179 Hispanics were killed by police officers in the line of duty. In 2018, the corresponding figures were 399 whites, 209 blacks, and 148 Hispanics. And in 2019, the totals were 370 whites, 235 blacks, and 158 Hispanics. There is not a hint of racism anywhere in these figures.
When we compare black rates of violent crime, with the rate at which blacks are shot and killed by police officers, we find that blacks are represented among those shooting victims at rates significantly lower than we would normally expect. For example, in 2017, blacks were just 23.6% of all people shot dead by police, even though they were arrested for 37.5% of all violent crimes. The following year, blacks were 26.3% of those fatally shot by police, even as they were arrested for fully 37.4% of violent crimes.
According to Heather Mac Donald: “The per capita rate of officers being feloniously killed is 45 times higher than the rate at which unarmed black males are killed by cops. And an officer’s chance of getting killed by a black assailant is 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black getting killed by a cop.”
In sum, there is a veritable Everest of evidence demolishing the fake, phony, fraudulent narrative of systemic police abuse aimed at African Americans. But the one trait that the raging rioters, the fervid protesters, the sanctimonious civil-rights leaders, and the preening celebrity tweeters all have in common, is their deep and abiding commitment to their own righteous rage. They very much want – and very much need – to believe that police brutality against black Americans is widespread and systemic. And they reflexively, indignantly rebel against any suggestion to the contrary, as though the foundational dogma of their holy faith were being called into question by blasphemous heretics.
But in the final analysis, they are all quite full of it. No matter how deeply their hearts may be seared by grief in response to the latest unnecessary loss of an innocent life, and no matter how organic may be the wellspring of the tears that now moisten their eyes, the pained and pious countenances that they dutifully bear cannot transform their lies into truth.
It is possible, you know, to do two reasonable things at once. That is, one can be outraged by the injustice that was done to George Floyd, without falsely portraying it as a microcosm of systemic racism by police officers across America. It is nothing of the kind.
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