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The Facts on Race, Crime, and Policing in America

No one could fail to be moved by the death of George Floyd, whose crime apparently was only the passing of a counterfeit $20 bill. Of course, we still do not know all of the facts, including whether Mr. Floyd resisted arrest, and if so, how. But the video revealed enough to horrify most Americans, and indeed, people all over the world.

The Floyd incident has raised anew the issue of police use of force, especially against people of color. Most Americans, black and white, believe that the criminal justice system treats blacks less fairly than whites. A 2019 Pew Research poll found that 84 percent of blacks and 63 percent of whites support this view. Those numbers may rise in the wake of the George Floyd episode.

Numerous proposals to reduce police violence are now being offered, but I’m skeptical that these will change things in the short or medium term. The reason for my lack of optimism is not that American police are incurably racist. Police are probably no more racist than the average American. Rather, it is that African Americans—low-income, young, male, urban African Americans, to be precise—engage in violent misconduct at higher rates than other groups, and violent crime begets police violence. As I will show, the more a group engages in violent crime, the more the police will use violence against members of the group.

Race, Crime, and Police Violence

Big city police are deployed in high numbers to low-income African American communities. Why? Because that’s where most of the crime is. That’s where it has been since the 1920s, and especially since the 1960s. Such deployments were far less common prior to the 1960s, when black communities were severely under-policed. The result was impunity for many black violent criminals and, in turn, an incentive for black men to engage in more violence as a self-defense mechanism.

The late 1960s changed this pattern. As black-on-white crime rose, police departments came under mounting pressure to control crime, much of which occurred in or near minority neighborhoods where it victimized black residents. African American violent crime rates soared between the 1960s and the early 1990s. During that period, in big cities, arrests of African Americans for homicide, the most accurate measure of violent crime, accounted for 65 to 78 percent of all homicide arrests. This is an extraordinary figure when one considers that the nonwhite population of these cities ranged from only 20 percent to a bit over 35 percent.

The situation today has improved considerably. African American crime rates, and United States crime rates generally, have fallen dramatically. For all persons of all age groups, the homicide death rate fell 34 percent from 1990 to 2016. For black males in the same time frame, the decline was 40 percent.

While violent crime has fallen, it nevertheless remains disproportionally high in communities of color. The latest police data collected by the FBI indicates that blacks comprised 58 percent of all murder arrests and 40 percent of those apprehended for all violent crimes. This disproportional involvement of African Americans in violent crime turns out to be the most significant factor of all in explaining the use of force against blacks by police.

It will be no surprise that violent criminals in the United States are commonly armed and dangerous. For assaults, for instance, 71 percent of arrested persons carried firearms. Among suspected murderers, 58 percent had guns, as did 42 percent of apprehended robbery suspects. This tally doesn’t include the knives or blunt instruments recovered from violent offenders, including over 48,000 cutting instruments possessed by those arrested for assault alone.

Police, of course, are well aware of this situation. Charged with a duty to apprehend offenders, they are—and must be—prepared to use force. Confrontations, often armed confrontations, in these circumstances are inevitable.

Such confrontations will frequently involve white police and black suspects. Whites are a declining proportion of police departments in the United States, but they’re still close to half the force in big-city departments where white males make up 44 percent of full-time sworn officers.

The Chicago Study

As it turns out, when it comes to the use of force, the race of the police officer may not be significant. A study of 270 police shootings in Chicago from 2006 to 2014 found that the demographics of the officers who fired their weapons matched the demographics of the police department. Whites were 51 percent of the shooters and 53 percent of the force; blacks were 23 percent of the shooters and 25 percent of the force. In other words, there is no evidence that white police were more likely to discharge their weapons or that African American officers were less likely. This is especially noteworthy given the demographics of the shooting victims: 5 percent were white, 14 percent Hispanic, and an eye-popping 80 percent were black.

Equally significant is the reason for the confrontation. In the overwhelming majority of cases (77 percent), the police were reactive, not proactive. They were responding, in the typical scenario, to a call about a violent crime. In the proactive situation (23 percent of the shootings), the officer initiated the contact, e.g., stopped a suspicious person.

One study showed that white police officers were no more likely than black officers to fatally shoot black civilians.

In 80 percent of the shootings, the officer reported a gun threat, and in 60 percent a firearm was recovered. In the remaining 20 percent, the officer said (s)he was threatened with a motor vehicle (12 percent), a weapon other than a gun (10 percent), or a physical attack (8 percent).

In short, according to the Chicago data, in the overwhelming majority of police-civilian shootings, the police didn’t initiate the confrontation, but rather were summoned by civilian reports, whereupon they fired in response to a direct threat of an attack, usually with a gun.

Nowadays many mistrust police accounts, suspecting a cover-up or at least a slanting of the truth. But there is empirical and unbiased support for the police version of events. It comes in a recent study of fatal police shootings and it is to this study that I now turn.

The Fatal Shootings Study

Psychologists led by David J. Johnson of the University of Maryland created a database of 917 fatal shootings of civilians by police in 2015. They correlated various factors—characteristics of the police officer, the civilian who was shot, and the county in which the incident occurred—with the race of the victim.

First, they found no evidence of bias against victims of color. “Controlling for predictors at the civilian, officer, and county levels,” the analysts wrote, “a person fatally shot by police was 6.67 times less likely . . . to be Black than White and 3.33 times less likely . . . to be Hispanic than White. Thus, in the typical shooting, we did not find evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity.”

This accords with national data compiled by the Washington Post, not exactly a pro-police publication, for a five-year period (2015-2019). The Post tallied 4,263 fatal shootings by police for which the race or ethnicity of the victim was known. Of these, 53 percent were white, 28 percent were black, and 20 percent were Hispanic. In other words, nearly twice as many whites as blacks were fatally shot by police.

Professor Johnson and associates examined the 2015 incidents in detail to determine the reasons for the shootings. They found that “[t]he vast majority—between 90 percent and 95 percent—of the civilians shot by officers were actively attacking police or other citizens when they were shot.” This confirms the claims of police shooters in Chicago, as noted above.

It also reinforces Roland Fryer’s highly publicized study on race and the use of force by police. Fryer found, after controlling for numerous factors, that blacks were 27.4 percent less likely than non-Hispanic whites to be fatally shot by police.

A second major finding of the Johnson study was the absence of any correlation between the race of the officer and that of the victim. That is, after controlling for other factors, white police officers were no more likely than black officers to fatally shoot black civilians. In fact, the more black officers on a police force, the more African Americans were fatally shot.

The most significant finding of all, though, was the correlation between violent crime and police shooting. The more violent crime by blacks in a county, the more blacks shot to death by police. In the words of the study:

[O]fficer race, sex, or experience did not predict the race of a person fatally shot beyond relationships explained by county demographics. On the other hand, race-specific violent crime strongly predicted the race of a civilian fatally shot by police, explaining over 40% of the variance in civilian race. These results bolster claims to take into account violent crime rates when examining fatal police shootings.

It is possible, of course, that police discriminate more when nonlethal force is involved. The Fryer study drew that very conclusion, finding, for instance, that police were 18 percent more likely to shove a black person than a white in similar circumstances. But this analysis, which was limited to New York City during the aggressive “stop-and-frisk” years, did not include data on crime rates within each police precinct broken down by race or ethnicity. Unlike the Johnson study, in other words, Fryer did not correlate nonlethal force with the violent crime rate of minority groups.

Police Violence and Criminal Violence

American police must face down armed violent criminals. That’s their job. Often those violent threats come from young, male, urban African Americans. As long as that is the case there will be violent confrontations between police and black civilians. Increasing the number of black police officers won’t change this. Nor will study commissions, police budget reductions, chokehold prohibitions, or the elimination of qualified immunity from civil suits, to mention a few of the proposals to curb police being bandied about. Some of these proposals may be wise, some not. But none will dramatically reduce the number of violent confrontations between police and African Americans.

This situation will change significantly when black violent crime rates decline significantly. That won’t occur any time soon, but it will happen. It happened to Irish-Americans who committed crime at exceptionally high rates in the 19th century, and to Italian-Americans who did likewise in the early 20th century. As the United States continues to reduce obstacles to black social advancement, and as African Americans take advantage of the opportunities that this country affords them, their crime too will become a distant memory.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on June 18, 2020 at 10:14:06 am

A fine essay; good and convincing (to some) statistics. i have no quarrel with them. However:

"As the United States continues to reduce obstacles to black social advancement, and as African Americans take advantage of the opportunities that this country affords them, their crime too will become a distant memory."

here is where I would disagree (reluctantly) with Mr Latzer.
Let us remember that the irish american and Italian american communities were NOT being provided excuses for their criminal behavior; nor were they cited, indeed, lauded as victims of an overly oppressive racist, capitalist system. Instead, they were educated to believe that, their travails notwithstanding, they, too, could rise within American society.
Presently, the dynamic that we observe is the polar opposite of that which my lineage experienced. "Insular" minorities (to slam Footnote 4 again) are encouraged to become more insular, to celebrate their insularity and their status as victim and that this will present the best opportunity to either gain the system or to achieve some measure of parity with the otherwise unduly "privileged."
Let me ask something here.
Will such an insular group respond in the manner in which I and my own parents responded when confronted with ethnic slurs, some of which led to the denial of certain opportunities? will they accept and move on to demonstrate the wrongness of such characterizations? or will they simply find further justification for their insularity?
Hazard a guess, boyos!

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gabe
on June 18, 2020 at 14:36:32 pm

A sui generis history and experience necessitates a sui generis vision.

The "1619 Project" is bad history. It is far worse, it is Kafkaesque absurdity posing as history that will further tempt and entrap many blacks, and society in general, in yet another progressivist snare. The black experience is sui generis in two pivotal respects. The history runs deeper and was not integral to European/Enlightenment sensibilities in any sense and secondly, given the timing and nexus of historical currents, blacks were more susceptible to being entrapped in progressivist currents and confines, of which the "1619 Project" is but one instance.

The vision it will take to overcome progressivism will likewise need to be uniquely tailored. Both remain decades-long visions and projects. Both are mortal threats and need to be acknowledged as such; both contain their own hope as well.

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Michael Bond
on June 18, 2020 at 15:14:07 pm

Three institutional factors differentiate the Black experience from those of the Irish and Italians and make the Black prognosis much more bleak: the demise post Irish and Italian immigration of public education, the family and the Church, all of which were socially-stabilizing forces and quite conducive to human flourishing. The Hispanic immigrant community has access to two of the three, so its prospects are much better even over a time-span that is 150 years shorter.

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paladin
on June 18, 2020 at 19:09:54 pm

A hideous comment, JB.

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Image of Michael Bond
Michael Bond
on June 18, 2020 at 20:17:37 pm

It seems incongruous that a John Jay professor hasn't apprised himself of facts and evidence of the Floyd incident beyond a citizen's camera video.

Details of the medical examiners report attesting to Fentanyl intoxication, serious cardio-respiratory impairment, witness statements of resisting, standard police policy protocol for suspect/detainee experiencing "excited delirium syndrome" (an emergency condition recognized by the American College of Emergency Physicians) due to his ingestion of drug intoxicants are readily available to those inclined to understand Floyd's confrontation with the police.

EMS had been summoned in order to to inject Floyd with an emergency dose ketamine to counter the drugs he ingested. This action appears to be concern for Floyd's health--not that of someone intent on harm.

This is Barry Latzer's field, yet he remains incredibly incurious as to the facts available for understanding the circumstances--making him just as ignorant as the general public for relying on a video. In what other areas should I rely on his misbegotten judgment?

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Forbes
on June 20, 2020 at 06:25:55 am

It is a fact that a person considers statistics to be facts. The statement "American police must face down armed violent criminals" is not a fact. Whether George Floyd resisted arrest is not an unknown fact. He was filmed not resisting arrest for 8 minutes and 42 seconds. That is both a fact and a factual record. The author of this article ought to possess an understanding of the nature of a fact. His article does not meet with the standards of this publication. I regret reading it.

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James O'Flaherty
on June 20, 2020 at 14:17:25 pm

Do you have video or eyewitness testimony leading up to that eight minutes?

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Barry Warren
on June 21, 2020 at 07:10:10 am

Speaking of facts, how about the time prior to those final cold and cruel and criminal 8 min. 42 seconds of Mr. Floyd's life? Have you seen any video of Mr. Floyd being escorted to the cop car? Think it might be possible he put up a struggle in the back seat? Do you think the cops just threw him down on the pavement for laughs? Cops can do lots of bad things, and Chauvin was a bad cop. But maybe, in the interest of all the facts, not just 8: 42, you ought to put a leash on your smug certainty.

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bill steigerwald
on June 21, 2020 at 13:30:39 pm

Your statement that police do not face violent criminals is as absurd as absurd gets. The entire purpose of the police is to deal with people that you don't want to. George Floyd, as any reasonable person can see, is a tragedy beyond words. The police involved will be severely punished, as they should be. If you read the criminal indictment, which I have, you would see he WAS resisting arrest for a long stretch of time prior to his death. The police recognized he was under the influence of a narcotic and called for an ambulance BEFORE the start of the famous video we all have seen. The officer was holding him down while waiting for that ambulance. I will say again, the police were WRONG, and should have NEVER done what they did but Floyd was a very violent man during this event and also his entire life and that can not be overlooked.

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on June 21, 2020 at 16:57:44 pm

James, I'm confused. What is the job of the police when dealing with violent criminals that are armed? Nothing? Really? What is the job of a military soldier when being shot at by the enemy? Not shoot back? It IS a fact that police as part of their very risky job have to deal with these dangerous situations. The George Floyd case does NOT fit this description, so I don't know why you are using it to justify your position that the article is devoid of facts, when in fact, the statistics and the evidence, all taken from actual police report data, were clearly laid out. In this situation the police did not do their job and used excessive force against a subdued suspect, who WAS initially resisting arrest when they tried to put him in the police car before he was subsequently and wrongfully killed by that officer who pinned him down and who should have been fired years ago for past misconduct. Did you even read the full report and facts on the George Floyd incident? Of course a police officer has to respond in a way that takes into account the level of threat in the situation. Please James, you can do better than that.

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Matthew Rose
on June 21, 2020 at 11:44:32 am

Hmmmm, one should not underestimate the human capacity to indulge in selective perceptions and rationales. These rationales are no less sincerely felt because they are self-serving; quite the contrary, it is a creed's congruity with a favorable self-image and self-interest that makes it so compelling - some wise person said where one sits often determines one's view.

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Anthony
on June 21, 2020 at 12:38:41 pm

I am an American African. This article is racist. Now that I have your attention. Facts. Having spent a brief time at the University of Chicago studying statistics. Data understanding and comprehending (not solely comprising and presenting) is essential. This article rests on data from only a racialized and class bias, maybe even gender. Crime surely cannot be limited to violent ones, and only by race. Crime comprises many variables. You are selecting and weighing only two. Moreover, you are then limiting the scope of the question (and time period) before the American (and world): is there, by fact, a systemic negative racial experience of people of African, Latinx, Indigenous citizens - and male, in the United State criminal justice system compared to the political group of “Whites.” Data set variables: TYPE of crime must be included (white rich people normally treat white collar crimes, hence name, NOT as consequential as violent ones by race and income), other variables: income, stops, warrants, arrests, bail, sentencing (death), facility, probation, incarceration. Clearly this is also a longitudinal inquiry, starting circa 1865. A simple Google search with key words provides an unequivocal YES. Also, your racialized view of crime, also fail to mention that the largest violent crime offender of white people is white people. In conclusion, coming from my historical, geographical academically trained racialized (male) 50+ years historical experience concludes that as well. Growing up in Chicago (South Side), I have witnessed decades of gun violence. My response has and is 1. We the Black community must model the Hasidic Hebrews in NYC and the Black Panther Party and patrol our neighborhoods 2. Demand the police (defunded, reimagined) join us in riding illegal weapons from our communities. How young Black men with limited economic mobility, little vocational training, no advanced education are able to procure over DECADES untraceable firearms and bullets is NOT a Gordian Knot. #Blacklivesmatter #whitelivesmatter #latinxlivesmatter #translivesmatter #poorpeoplelivesmatter even if they disproportionately harm one another. Their bodies, voice, economic participation and outcomes deserve equitable treatment under the law which we have fought and died for in every war to expand to include us. FACTUALLY it (system) was not intended for us. The United States Supreme Court only in the last 60 years acknowledged and provide remedy .

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Patrick Christofer Riley
on June 21, 2020 at 14:30:01 pm

There is the George Floyd tragedy, about which there is very little disagreement.
What this incident says about policing and racism in America has little consensus.
Facts are useful in illuminating the issues and inform better solutions, but few facts are considered before pundits roll out their favorite solutions.
I am pleased that are pushing a fact-based approach.
We need more honest dialogue.
Here is what I wrote about this subject after doing my own research: https://shivamber.com/we-must-have-a-conversation-about-policing-and-racism-in-america/

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Leon
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