[David Bernstein] Some Lessons from a Washington Post Graphic on Police Shootings

[Deaths from police shootings are too common but still rare, the majority of victims are white, and the Post wants to push a simple narrative about a complicated subject.] It’s no secret to readers of the Volokh Conspiracy, nor to readers of our host site Reason.com, that the American criminal justice is in dire need of reform.

All that said, we rely on the media to inform us about these issues, but instead we get a preconceived narrative, as illustrated by the graphic from the Washington Post, below. I take it that readers are supposed to look at this graphic, be outraged at the disparities, and then draw whatever conclusions may follow.

First, note that over a five year period, 1,262 Blacks, 887 Hispanics, and 2412 Whites were shot to death by police. In aggregate, that’s a lot of people, and we should hope (and perhaps demand) that cops can be trained to use non-lethal force more often in many situations in which they feel threatened. Police in other countries seem to manage it. On the other hand, I’ve heard a great deal of rhetoric over the past week to the effect that police officers are basically just looking for black men to hunt down, and that there is a decent chance that any encounter between the police and a black man will result in the black man’s death. That is simply not borne out by the data (even if we note that some smaller number of deaths from police violence are not from shootings). Looking just at deadly shootings, black men get arrested two million times or so each year.  Many millions more times, police have other adversarial encounters with black men, such as traffic stops, or confrontations that don’t lead to arrest. A tiny percentage of those encounters lead to deadly shootings, and in some fraction of those, the police use of force was justified by the threat faced by the officer. So the odds of an unjustified deadly shooting of a black man in a confrontation with police in any given instance is tiny.


Second, the number of whites shot and killed by police is surprisingly high, at least if one has assimilated the rhetoric out there. African Americans are getting shot disproportionately often compared to whites on a per capita basis, but if you look at arrest data, you see that African Americans are arrested for violent crime much more often per capita than whites. This creates more opportunities for confrontations between violent criminals and the police, and undoubtedly explains at least some of the disparity.


Third (and this is what struck me the most), the Post could hardly be more transparent about the narrative it’s trying to push. The graphic shows that blacks are shot to death by police more than Hispanics who are shot more than Whites who are shot much more often than… “other”. Other is about 49 million people, which would include about 21 million Asian Americans, who likely have an even lower rate of being shot to death by police than the full “other” category. But if you are trying to frame the narrative as an uncomplicated “cops shoot people of color more than whites” you can’t actually break out “Asians” because that undermines the narrative and means you have to dig a bit beyond the simple formula.

Source: [David Bernstein] Some Lessons from a Washington Post Graphic on Police Shootings