Listening to liberals like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, you would think that enormous numbers of black men are being gunned down by police officers. When the issue is debated, many take it for granted that a vastly disproportionate number of blacks are involved in police shootings–in fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think that only blacks are ever shot by policemen.
The numbers tell a different story. Like all statistics, they bounce around from year to year, but let’s go with the Washington Post’s study of police shootings in 2015. The Post found that 990 people, almost all of them men, were shot and killed by law enforcement last year. Before you start calling them victims, however, note that the Post also found that in three-quarters of these incidents, police were defending either themselves or someone else who was, at that moment, under attack. That leaves around 250 cases that were not obvious self-defense or defense of a third person. That doesn’t mean, of course, that those shootings were unjustified.
What was the racial breakdown of those who were shot by police in 2015? The largest number, 494, almost exactly half, were white. 258 were black, 172 were Hispanic, and the remaining 66 were either “other” or unknown. (Interestingly, Asians are rarely shot by police officers.)
The 258 blacks represent 26% of the total. That is about double the percentage of blacks in the American population. Is that prima facie evidence of racism on the part of law enforcement? Of course not. It is common knowledge that blacks have an unusually high rate of contact with the police, both as victims and as perpetrators. In 2012-2013, the Department of Justice found that blacks were the perpetrators of 24% of all violent crimes where the race of the perpetrator was known (in 7.8% of violent crimes, it was unknown).
So the percentage of blacks fatally shot by police officers (26%) is almost exactly equal to the percentage of blacks committing violent crimes (24%) [to be clear, that is the percentage of violent crimes committed by blacks, as stated above, which is the relevant comparison]. Indeed, given that the black homicide rate is around eight times the white rate, it is surprising that the portion of blacks fatally shot by policemen is not higher.
Liberals might argue that blacks are disproportionately the victims of unjustified shootings by law enforcement, but I have not seen anyone try seriously to make that case. The Post took a pass at supporting the liberal narrative by arguing that “unarmed” blacks are shot at a higher rate than whites. But the Post failed to note that, according to its own data, blacks are much more likely to attack police officers while unarmed. I don’t know why this is, but in general, I think that unarmed people who assault police officers are likely to be high on drugs. The Post also failed to point out that blacks are much more likely to assault police officers with motor vehicles. That counts as “unarmed.” We had a case like that recently in Minnesota, where a black perpetrator tried to run down a police officer and the officer shot him in self-defense.
One can slice the Post’s 2015 data in various ways. One question is whether there is a racial disparity with regard to whether the policeman or someone else is under direct attack by a perpetrator–i.e., an obvious case of self-defense. I did the math, and it turns out that, for whatever reason, the percentages are a little different for each ethnic group. (You can measure anything by ethnic group, and in all likelihood the numbers won’t be exactly the same. If it is to your political advantage, you can call that difference a “disparity” or a “gap.”)
According to the Post’s numbers–and you should bear in mind that a subjective process of classification lies behind each instance–80% of whites who were fatally shot by police officers in 2015 were in the midst of an attack on the policeman or someone else. According to the Post, 71% of blacks were shot while attacking someone, while 66% of “others” and 62% of Hispanics were shot while attacking the policeman or someone else. If you take these differences seriously, which you probably shouldn’t since re-classifying a small number of instances would dramatically change the results, they might be an argument for discrimination against Hispanics and Asians. Blacks turn out to be a relatively favored group, by this measure.
In short, the data on police shootings show that blacks are involved in such incidents just about exactly as often as one would expect, given their violent crime rate. Slicing and dicing the numbers is interesting, but doesn’t generate any obviously relevant correlations that would change that finding. Which means that, unless someone can make a compelling argument based on the data, which we have not yet seen, the Black Lives Matter movement is founded on a lie.