If, in the last month, you earnestly followed major news coverage, trending social media posts, and/or the sentiments of millions of protestors, you would probably think that America has a real problem with homicidal police violence. You would also think that this is a veritable crisis for black lives across the country. There’s a good chance you would even agree with Black Lives Matter, and most Democrats, who want to “defund the police.” Hence, if you, like a growing number of Americans, fit this description, it would shock you to find that an overwhelming body of evidence disproves the popular, but groundless, narrative of fatal racist US policing.
Firstly, killings by American cops are highly unusual in general, as the data on police encounters reflects. According to 2015 DOJ reports, officers stopped around 53.5 million people or 21% of American residents. This doesn’t account for multiple encounters with the same suspect, which would raise the total significantly. Meanwhile, in 2019, killings by on-duty cops reached about 1,097, as recorded by online databases. Therefore, presuming that the rate of police-public contacts held steady, American cops last year had a kill-per-encounter rate of .000016%. Again, this is a high estimate, overlooking separate contacts with individuals. Put in even more perspective, the rate of the US population slain by police per year is .0000034% – not much of an epidemic. Further, only around 55 of those who were killed were unarmed. This means that a whopping .000001% of police encounters led to casualties of civilians who didn’t have weapons of some kind (1.7e-7% of all Americans). If you’re not wielding something, you’re more likely to be murdered by a dog than by your local cop. You’re almost ten times more likely to be victimized by a family member. On the whole, American police form a stunningly effective institution when it comes to preserving human life while in the line of duty.
Nevertheless, detractors of those in blue will point to proportionately higher cop killings of African-Americans as evidence of deadly bigotry. If immediately plausible, charges of lethal anti-black police prejudice don’t add up, especially given the demographics of violent crime. On one hand, over the last four years, and in cases where race was known, African-Americans suspects composed 29.6% of all police victims. This rate is, indeed, 2.5 times the percentage of blacks in the US. As high as it appears, however, it is substantially lower than the proportion of African-Americans who commit homicides. For example, in 2018, according to race-specific FBI data, black offenders were responsible for more than half of all US killings. DOJ surveys from 1980-2008 offer practically identical results. Therefore, if African-Americans killed by police are overrepresented by 67% in terms of population, they are underrepresented by 40% regarding murder. The share of black casualties of police is also fairly reflective of general African-American violent crime commission. In fact, despite the flaws in their main thesis, Drs. Cesario and Johnson of MSU showed that racial violent crime rate in a given area “strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot.” Overlap between rates of urban violence and of deadly police shootings seems to support this. Consequently, the American “racist cop” issue would be better assessed as a serious crime issue – one for which reference to population alone is inadequate.
Furthermore, a black-led Rutgers research team proved that white cops actually shoot African-Americans at far lower rates than black or Hispanics officers; a finding corroborated by other scholars, especially with respect to blacks without weapons. Even a Harvard study reporting some implicit bias against African-American suspects still held that police of all races were less likely to shoot them, compared to suspects of different racial backgrounds. In sum, not only are police killings minimal, they produce black victims less than or similarly to what key indicators of law enforcement violence, like racial crime rates, would suggest. Moreover, disproportionately few of those African-American deaths come from white officers, particularly among unarmed blacks, whose annual police casualties average just 20.
Most ironically, proactive cops have been, on balance, a huge boon for African-American lives. The law enforcement revolution of the early 1990s undeniably helped to end the crime wave of the ‘70s and ‘80s that featured more than 200,000 black inter-community murders. With black-on-black homicide levels plunging by 60% over the last generation, data-driven policing must be credited as a unique lifesaver for thousands of would-be minority victims. “De-policing,” painfully visible today following George Floyd’s death, unsurprisingly leads to reverses of such gains. Importantly, none of these realities are lost on the broader African-Americans community: late last month, amid accelerating interest in reform, a sizable black majority still rejected any local police budget reductions. Clearly, Black Lives Matter and their Democratic allies do not exactly speak for everyone. Encouraging killings of pre-born black babies and the erosion of the traditional African-American family only underlines the cartoonish liberal approach to black life. Ultimately, to meaningfully appreciate black lives, we need to look well beyond vapid anti-police politics.