A brief post on racial disparities in officer involved shootings

I have recently heard it said that the reason the police shoot blacks, especially young black men, at such a disproportionate rate is because they have an irrational fear of them because they are black.   Presumably the proponents of this view believe that shootings, “justifiable” or otherwise, should happen in roughly equal proportion to their share of population.  Although I do not believe the police are incapable of excessive force, racial discrimination, negligence, or what have you, the presumption that such disparities must be explained by presumed irrational fear of blacks strikes me as terribly naive on several levels.

Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy did an interesting post on “Race, Age, and Police Killings” a few weeks back that compared nation-wide homicide rates by age group and race to the police shooting statistics.

rcp_white_black_homicide_offenders rcp_whites_blacks_killed_by_age


I thought this was a good and fair way to better illuminate the “fairness” issues here, since groups (e.g., sex, age, race, ethnicity, education, etc) that commit more murder (and other violent crimes) nationally can be reasonably assumed to be more likely to have confrontations with police and more violent confrontations when they do.

I found some data to take this point further by looking more granularly at the demographics of offenders that have actually killed law enforcement and offenders that have assaulted and seriously injured the police (as in with guns, knives, etc).  This data gives us a much better sense for the risks posed by each groups to the police and which groups are relatively more likely to be be confrontational, disobey, or even resort to violence, i.e., it speaks much more directly to the dynamics of police encounters with particular demographics (to the extent that one can argue that, say, national homicide rates are only black-on-black, gang-on-gang, or some such).  Most police encounters do not result in death of either party or even an exchange of gun fire, but groups that kill, injure, or assault the police at (much) higher rates can be reasonably presumed to be at (much) higher risk of getting killed by the police, “justifiable” or otherwise.

Law enforcement officers feloniously killed by demographics of known assailants


[Blacks killed 44% of the police officers killed in the FBI’s 2003-2012 data]


[Those under age 35 (all races) accounted for the vast majority of police killings]


[Males killed 98% of the police in this dataset]

Law enforcement officer assaulted AND injured with firearms, knives, and other cutting instruments in 2013 by demographics of known assailants


[Blacks accounted for 54%]


[Age distribution of white assailants]


[Age distribution of black assailants.  Notice that, amongst blacks, young people account for a much larger share of the assaults than amongst whites]

Google Chrome 48Source: A study of felonious assaults on our nation’s law enforcement officers

I am not involved with law enforcement in any shape, way, or form. I do not believe that the police are beyond reproach.  I do not subscribe to the notion that police tactics are necessarily optimal today. I do not believe that there is zero bias or racism in police departments nationally.

However, it does not strike me these disparities are out of line with the data that most honest people should be well aware of by now.  The police may well be more “fearful” in dealing with some groups more than others (e.g., blacks more than others, males more than women, young more than old, poor more than rich, big more than small, etc), but that does not imply that there is not a very real rational basis for their fears or that this fear is likely to explain the outcomes we find.  When we know that some groups are actually disproportionately likely to kill, injure, or assault police we should not be very surprised when these same groups are the “victims” (“justifiable” or otherwise) of police shootings at higher rates too.



Some of this is likely because some groups clearly have many more encounters with police, i.e., because they commit crimes at a higher rates or are otherwise involved in circumstances that require police intervention (e.g., fights, disturbing the peace, etc).  Some groups are more likely to resist arrest, to confront the police, or even to try to assault or injure the police on average.  Some cities and communities also have more different risks and relationships with police.  These and other factors are likely to notably increase each groups’ odds of getting shot and/or killed by the police.  We do not need to invoke notions like irrational fear to explain why some groups are disproportionately likely to get shot.   In this particular case, I cannot help but noticing that blacks accounted for 44% of the LEO killed and 54% of injuries of LEO (assaults with guns and knives) but “only” 31% of LEO’s victims (at least in 2012).

Moreover, I object to the false dichotomy being presented here by many progressive and libertarian-types, i.e., either the victim(s) “deserved” it or the individual police officer(s) are guilty of murder or, at least, manslaughter.  Police officers are imperfect human beings who we depend on to enforce the law and whose lives are at very real risk in these sorts of situations (usually).   That law enforcement may sometimes make mistakes, both in the shootings and in the moments leading up to them, does not mean that every shooting is a mistake or that every victim “deserved” it.  People that argue this point of view demonstrate a poverty of imagination.

Just because we learn that a particular victim was “unarmed”, for instance, does not mean that law enforcement (especially lone officers) do not have good reason to fear for their life or that they necessarily had other options (e.g., if the suspect already assaulted them, if the suspect is larger and/or stronger, if the suspect disobeys a direct order and charges them, etc).  It especially does not imply that the officer’s individual behavior was actually criminal or should be treated as such. There is room to acknowledge that these victims are not necessarily homicidal murderers that “deserve” to die or that police procedures might be able to change so as to minimize the frequency of these sorts of incidents, but we should also recognize that the so-called victims often play a very large role in their own deaths (e.g., in assaulting the police officers, ignoring their orders, drawing weapons, etc…. not to mention choosing to engage in criminal actions more often than not).

In any event, some groups clearly place themselves at much greater risk of being shot by the police than others for a variety of reasons. If we care about “fairness” and about actually minimizing these deaths (both LEO and the broader community), then we should look at all of the data and try to better understand the root causes instead of putting forth facile arguments about subconscious bias explaining everything with nary any reference to assaults on police officers or what have you!


2 thoughts on “A brief post on racial disparities in officer involved shootings

  1. “…some groups clearly place themselves at much greater risk of being shot by the police…”
    excellent analysis – i wish the media were brave & honest enough to use your data based conclusion!
    thanks for your work.

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