We are led to believe by the protesters of last week that police are violent racists.
George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis has revived the Obama-era narrative that law enforcement is endemically racist. On Friday, Barack Obama tweeted that for millions of black Americans, being treated differently by the criminal justice system on account of race is “tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.’ ” Mr. Obama called on the police and the public to create a “new normal,” in which bigotry no longer “infects our institutions and our hearts.”
Joe Biden released a video the same day in which he asserted that all African-Americans fear for their safety from “bad police” and black children must be instructed to tolerate police abuse just so they can “make it home.” That echoed a claim Mr. Obama made after the ambush murder of five Dallas officers in July 2016. During their memorial service, the president said African-American parents were right to fear that their children may be killed by police officers whenever they go outside.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz denounced the “stain . . . of fundamental, institutional racism” on law enforcement during a Friday press conference. He claimed blacks were right to dismiss promises of police reform as empty verbiage.
This charge of systemic police bias was wrong during the Obama years and remains so today. However sickening the video of Floyd’s arrest, it isn’t representative of the 375 million annual contacts that police officers have with civilians. A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the criminal-justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing. Crime and suspect behavior, not race, determine most police actions.
In 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people, most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops last year (235), a ratio that has remained stable since 2015. That share of black victims is less than what the black crime rate would predict, since police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.
The police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019, according to a Washington Post database, down from 38 and 32, respectively, in 2015. The Post defines “unarmed” broadly to include such cases as a suspect in Newark, N.J., who had a loaded handgun in his car during a police chase. In 2018 there were 7,407 black homicide victims. Assuming a comparable number of victims last year, those nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1% of all African-Americans killed in 2019. By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.
On Memorial Day weekend in Chicago alone, 10 African-Americans were killed in drive-by shootings. Such routine violence has continued—a 72-year-old Chicago man shot in the face on May 29 by a gunman who fired about a dozen shots into a residence; two 19-year-old women on the South Side shot to death as they sat in a parked car a few hours earlier; a 16-year-old boy fatally stabbed with his own knife that same day. This past weekend, 80 Chicagoans were shot in drive-by shootings, 21 fatally, the victims overwhelmingly black. Police shootings are not the reason that blacks die of homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; criminal violence is.
The latest in a series of studies undercutting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. There is “no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,” they concluded.
A 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects. Research by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. also found no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings. Any evidence to the contrary fails to take into account crime rates and civilian behavior before and during interactions with police.
The false narrative of systemic police bias resulted in targeted killings of officers during the Obama presidency. The pattern may be repeating itself. Officers are being assaulted and shot at while they try to arrest gun suspects or respond to the growing riots. Police precincts and courthouses have been destroyed with impunity, which will encourage more civilization-destroying violence. If the Ferguson effect of officers backing off law enforcement in minority neighborhoods is reborn as the Minneapolis effect, the thousands of law-abiding African-Americans who depend on the police for basic safety will once again be the victims.
The Minneapolis officers who arrested George Floyd must be held accountable for their excessive use of force and callous indifference to his distress. Police training needs to double down on de-escalation tactics. But Floyd’s death should not undermine the legitimacy of American law enforcement, without which we will continue on a path toward chaos.
For many, this prolonged civil unrest is shocking. It shouldn’t be. Police have been the targets of a poisonous, decades-long campaign to paint law enforcement as a violent cog in the machine of a racially oppressive criminal-justice system. As more and more serious-minded people embraced this narrative and disregarded the astonishing progress made in racial tolerance, the question ceased to be whether America would see the large-scale riots of the kind that occurred in the mid- to late 1960s—when charges of widespread racism in policing had some merit—but only a question of when.
Many protest supporters have expressed frustration with the attention being given to a relative handful of agitators driving the violence and looting—behavior, they say, that distorts the image of what is largely a peaceful movement. Their frustration is understandable but also ironic: the narrative that has driven thousands into the streets is itself a distortion. Just as the violence that has alarmed the American public does not represent the peaceful protesters exercising their right to air their grievances, the police violence depicted in viral videos does not characterize the institution of law enforcement.
This is not to say that police are perfect, or that officers never abuse their power; they are not perfect, and some do succumb to what can be an intoxicating sense of authority. This is a truth I’ve personallyexperienced. Nor is it to say that there is no room to improve policing and to make police-citizen encounters both safer and less fraught. But if there is to be any hope for peacefully bridging the gap so strikingly represented by the glass-covered asphalt separating rioters and police, destructive hyperbole needs to be recognized for what it is.
The data on police use of force predominantly reveal professionalism and restraint. Yet, as with so many aspects of America’s criminal-justice reform debate, context and nuance are regularly cast aside in favor of obfuscation and mischaracterization. Consider, for example, an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post by columnist Catherine Rampell, in which she lamented that, “In the United States last year, police shot and killed more than 1,000 people; by comparison, across England and Wales, fewer than 100 died in police shootings over the past two decades.” While factually accurate, this observation ignores important and obvious differences between these nations. America is home to nearly 330 million people, for instance, while England and Wales have a combined population of about 59 million.
The comparison also ignores vast differences in the prevalence of criminal violence. Based on data from the year ending in March 2018, England and Wales see about 726 homicides annually. Compare that total with the prevalence of criminal homicides in four contiguous community areas on Chicago’s West Side (Humboldt Park, Austin, East and West Garfield Park), which, in 2018, saw 121 killings. That’s 16 percent of the homicide total for England and Wales; an eye-opening statistic, given that the estimated population of those areas is just 189,846—approximately 0.3 percent of the population of England and Wales. The murder rate of those four community areas (about 63.73 per 100,000) is more than 50 times higher than that of England and Wales (approximately 1.23 per 100,000). In Baltimore’s Western and Southwestern police districts—with a combined estimated population of 103,052—100 homicides occurred in 2018. In other words, just a few subsections of two U.S. cities account for 30 percent of the homicides seen in all of England and Wales—and the combined population of those American subsections (292,898) represents just 0.5 percent of England and Wales.
These numbers explain why the United States sees comparably more deadly police-citizen encounters than some other Western European democracies to which it is so often unfavorably compared. The higher rate of police use of force must also be contextualized in light of the overall volume of police activity. In 2018, police discharged their firearms an estimated 3,043 times, killing 992 people. Without more information, one can understand how these numbers might suggest that police violence is common. But consider also that, that same year, an estimated 686,665 full-time law-enforcement officers made more than 10.3 million arrests—a fraction of the more than 50 million contacts (based on 2015 data) that they have with members of the public (think traffic and pedestrian stops, investigative inquiries, and so on). As I recently argued in The Federalist Society Review: even if we attribute each of the 3,043 estimated firearm discharges by police in 2018 to a unique officer, we can infer that, at most, 0.4 percent of police officers purposely discharged a firearm in 2018. And if we assume that every shooting happened during the course of a separate arrest, we can infer that, at most, police applied deadly force with a firearm in just 0.003 percent of arrests.
This is in line with other data I highlighted in these pages two years ago—namely, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, which analyzed more than 114,000 criminal arrests made across three midsize police departments, finding that more than 99 percent of arrests were carried out without the use of physical force. In 98 percent of the cases in which those officers did use physical force, suspects “sustained no or mild injury.”
Historical context is important, too. In 1971, New York City Police discharged their firearms 810 times, wounding 221 people and killing 93. By 1990, those numbers were down to 307, 72, and 39, respectively. In 2016, police discharged their weapons just 72 times, wounding 23, killing 9. This is real progress; but it would come as news to anyone observing the mobs that have spent the last few days hurling insults, rocks, and Molotov cocktails at exhausted and demoralized members of the NYPD.
As troubling as cases like that of George Floyd are, we must remember that they are outliers. That knowledge won’t bring comfort or justice to those harmed or killed by police who use unjustifiable force, or their families; but it can help lower the temperature in an environment that is about as inhospitable to reasonable discussion as can be imagined. Grounding the debate about how to improve policing in data rather than hyperbole may help rebut the toxic narrative about policing that has become so broadly accepted. Its persistence, in minds and hearts, will only lead to more of the destruction and anarchy currently ravaging our country.
Of course, the First Amendment guarantees us the right to express ourselves, even if the speaker is incorrect or even lying.