The Plight of the Unarmed Perp

On the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, the Washington Post published a long article on shootings of unarmed black men that was intended to be racially inflammatory. The subheading was: “A year after Michael Brown’s fatal shooting, unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire.”

But the Post’s actual findings were considerably less dramatic:

So far this year, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police….Those 24 cases constitute a surprisingly small fraction of the 585 people shot and killed by police through Friday evening, according to The Post database. Most of those killed were white or Hispanic, and the vast majority of victims of all races were armed.

Ninety per cent, actually, were armed:

However, black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population [Ed.: That is a silly calculation. Probably all 60 were men]. The Post’s analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.

So of 60 unarmed deaths, 24 were blacks and 36 were whites and Hispanics, and maybe a few Asians. It looks like there are actually more whites than blacks in this group, but blacks are seven times more likely to be shot while unarmed on a pro rata basis. (The arithmetic is obscure, but let’s assume the Post is right.)

The Post goes on to review some of the 24 cases where unarmed blacks were shot by police (but none of the 36 cases where unarmed non-blacks were shot) in considerable detail. Frequently, the Post’s accounts are weirdly dissociated from reality:

The latest such shooting occurred Friday, claiming Christian Taylor, 19, a promising defensive back on the Angelo State University football team. Police said Taylor crashed an SUV through the front window of a car dealership in Arlington, Tex., and was shot in an altercation with responding officers.

I was perhaps the least promising college defensive back prospect in America, but somehow I managed to resist the urge to drive a vehicle through the front window of a car dealership. You probably did, too. But that wasn’t the fatal error; the fatal error was attacking the police officers who came to investigate.

This happens repeatedly–although, it should be remembered, in a number of instances that you can almost count on your fingers and toes, in a country of 320 million. Michael Brown’s case was a classic. The “gentle giant” robbed a convenience store, shoved the clerk aside, walked down the middle of the road, and, when questioned by Officer Darren Wilson, responded by beating on Wilson through his open vehicle window and trying to steal his gun. When the gun discharged, Brown ran. Wilson got out of his car and demanded that Brown stop and surrender; instead of doing so, the 6′ 4″, 292-pound Brown charged Wilson. What could possibly make him think that was a good idea?

This is the point I really want to make: the constant emphasis on police shootings of *unarmed* men that we see in the press is, for the most part, crazy. If you are a perp, or a suspect, or an inoffensive person walking down the street, you may be unarmed, but the police officer is not. Nor, in most cases, will he have any immediate way to know whether you are armed or not. If you attack him, what do you expect him to do? Challenge you to an arm-wrestling match? He is entitled to use deadly force to defend himself. Attacking a police officer rarely ends well. Likewise with fleeing a police officer who is ordering you to stop.

If there is a problem here, it does not demand a thorough revamping of American police practices. Rather, it suggests that those who have influence with a small demographic group–6% of the population, according to the Post–impress upon them that they should not attack police officers under any circumstances, and if told to stop, they should stop. If they put their hands up, they are not going to get shot.

One last note: the Post casually adds that 18 law officers have been shot and killed by a suspect in the line of duty so far this year. No mention of the race of the officers or of the persons who shot them. Race is only relevant in certain highly selective circumstances, when it can be of political benefit to the party favored by newspaper reporters and editors.