Police Killings of Blacks: Here Is What the Data Suggests
Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. Each killing raises a disturbing question: Would any of these people have been killed by police officers if they had been white?
I have no special insight into the psychology of police officers or into the complicated forensics involved in such cases. Answering this question in any single situation can be difficult and divisive. Two outside experts this month concluded, for example, that the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was carrying a toy gun, was a “reasonable” if tragic response. That will hardly be the last word on the subject.
As an economist who has studied racial discrimination, I’ve begun to look at these deaths from a different angle. There is ample statistical evidence of large and persistent racial bias in other areas — from labor markets to online retail markets. So I expected that police prejudice would be a major factor in accounting for the killings of African-Americans. But when I looked at the numbers, that’s not exactly what I found.
I’m not saying that the police in these specific cases are free of racial bias. I can’t answer that question. But what the data does suggest is that eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially reduce the total number of African-American killings. Police bias may well be a significant problem, but in accounting for why some of these encounters turn into killings, it is swamped by other, bigger problems that plague our society, our economy and our criminal justice system.
To understand how this can be, let us start with the statistics on police killings. According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population. While this data may be imperfect, other sources in individual states or cities, such as in California or New York City, show very similar patterns.
The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter.
Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.