About Those Unarmed Black Victims

The Washington Post has been analyzing local press accounts to build a database of police shootings. The paper published preliminary results last August; I commented on them here. The Post’s numbers showed that as a percentage of the population, unarmed blacks were seven times as likely to be shot. (In the final accounting the Post has just released, that drops to six times as likely.) Noting that shootings of unarmed men generally followed attacks on police officers by those “victims,” I wrote last August:

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.

The Post has now completed its 2015 database. It identified a total of 990 people who were fatally shot by police officers. In 780 of these cases, there was an “attack in progress,” i.e., the “victim” was attacking one or more police officers. In the paper’s final tally, 97 “unarmed” people were killed by police, including 40 blacks, 34 whites, and 18 Hispanics.

Heather Mac Donald has gone behind the numbers to shed further light on the “unarmed” category:

It is worth looking at the specific cases included in the Post’s unarmed victim classification in some detail, since that category is the most politically explosive. The “unarmed” label is literally accurate, but it frequently fails to convey highly-charged policing situations. In a number of cases, if the victim ended up being unarmed, it was certainly not for lack of trying. At least five black victims had reportedly tried to grab the officer’s gun, or had been beating the cop with his own equipment. Some were shot from an accidental discharge triggered by their own assault on the officer. And two individuals included in the Post’s “unarmed black victims” category were struck by stray bullets aimed at someone else in justified cop shootings. If the victims were not the intended targets, then racism could have played no role in their deaths. …

Other unarmed black victims in the Post’s database were so fiercely resisting arrest, judging from press accounts, that the officers involved could reasonably have viewed them as posing a grave danger. In October 2015, a San Diego officer was called to a Holiday Inn in nearby Point Loma, after hotel employees ejected a man causing a disturbance in the lobby. The officer approached a male casing cars in the hotel’s parking lot. The suspect jumped the officer and both fell to the ground. The officer tried to Tase the man, hitting himself as well. The suspect repeatedly tried to wrench the officer’s gun from its holster, according to news reports, and continued assaulting the officer after both had stood up. Fearing for his life, the officer shot the man. …

Similarly, in August, an officer from Prince George’s County, Maryland, pursued a man who had fled from a car crash. The man tried to grab the officer’s gun, and it discharged. The suspect continued to fight with the officer until he was Tased by a second officer and tackled by a third. The shot that was discharged during the struggle ultimately proved fatal to the suspect. In January, a sheriff’s deputy in Strong, Arizona, responded to a pharmacy burglary alarm in the early morning. The burglar inside fought with the deputy for control of the deputy’s gun and it discharged. …

In several cases in the Post’s “unarmed black man” category, the suspect had gained control of other pieces of an officer’s equipment and was putting it to potentially lethal use. In New York City, a robbery suspect apprehended in a narrow stairwell beat two detectives’ faces bloody with a police radio. In Memphis, Tennessee, a 19-year-old wanted on two out-of-state warrants, including a sex offense in Iowa, kicked open a car door during a car stop, grabbed the officer’s handcuffs, and hit him in the face with them.

In other instances in the Post’s “unarmed black man” category, the suspect’s physical resistance was so violent that it could reasonably have put the officer in fear for his life. A trespasser at a motel in Barstow, California, brought a sheriff’s deputy to the ground and beat him in the face so viciously that he broke numerous bones and caused other injuries. The suspect refused repeated orders to desist and move away. …

An Orlando, Florida, officer was called about a fight in an apartment complex. The suspect fought so violently with the responding officer that the officer’s equipment had been torn off and was strewn about the scene, including his used Taser, baton, gun magazine, and wristwatch. In Dearborn, Michigan, a probation violator escaped from officers after committing a theft; later in the day, an officer approached him and he again took off running. A fight ensued, which left the officer with his gun belt loosened, his equipment from the belt on the ground, and his uniform ripped. The officer was covered with mud and sustained minor injuries. In Miami, a man crashed a taxi cab in the early morning hours and took off running onto a highway. During the fight, the driver bit the officer’s finger so hard that he nearly severed it; surgery was required to reattach it to the left hand.

Do such cases explain the disparity between unarmed blacks and unarmed whites?

According to the press accounts, only one unarmed white victim attempted to grab the officer’s gun. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a 50-year-old white suspect in a domestic assault call ran at the officer with a spoon; he was Tased and then shot. A 28-year-old driver in Des Moines, Iowa, led police on a chase, then got out of his car and walked quickly toward the officer, and was shot. In Akron, Ohio, a 21-year-old suspect in a grocery store robbery who had escaped on a bike did not remove his hand from his waistband when ordered to do so. Had any of these victims been black, police critics might well have conferred on them instant notoriety; instead, they are unknown.

Given that we are talking about an extraordinarily small number of cases–40 “unarmed” blacks killed by police in 2015–these individual stories are critical. The superficial assumption that any shooting of an “unarmed” man must be an instance of racism or other wrongdoing is simply false, and continued circulation of that myth by media outlets is irresponsible.