Research shows crime and suspect behaviour – not race – determine most police actions in the USA

The images of Minnesota policeman Derek Chauvin kneeling on a dying African-American man’s neck have ricocheted around the world.  From Auckland to London, Christchurch to cities across the US, tens of thousands have marched in opposition to what is perceived as systemic police violence against one race.

Chauvin’s charges have now been ramped up to 2nd degree murder and the others in his squad have now been charged, too.

On the left of US politics, from former President Barack Obama to 2020 candidate Joe Biden, there’s a claim that for millions of black Americans being treated differently by the criminal justice system is “tragically, painfully, maddeningly normal” (to quote the former president).

But is this really the case? Are police forces across the US riddled with officers whose primary targets are African-Americans and Hispanics?

The statistics aren’t convincing.  The Wall Street Journal  has published research which paints a different picture.  It was prepared by Heather Mac Donald, a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, a think-tank.

Those on the left will claim the WSJ, one of Rupert Murdoch’s stable of newspapers, is hardly a beacon for the liberal cause.  It does, however, have a reputation for careful research.

The WSJ  says the charge of systemic police bias was wrong during the Obama years and remains so today.

The videos of violent arrests isn’t representative of the 375 million annual contacts police officers have with civilians. A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the criminal-justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing.

Crime and suspect behaviour, not race, determine most police actions.

Research indicates that in 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people, most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. Of this total, 235 were African-Americans, about a quarter of those killed, a ratio that has remained stable since 2015.

That share of black victims is less than what the black crime rate would predict, since police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects.

In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the US and commit about 60% of robberies, though they represent only 13% of the population.

The police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019, according to a Washington Post database, down from 38 and 32, respectively, in 2015.

The Post defined “unarmed” broadly to include such cases as a suspect in Newark, New Jersey who had a loaded handgun in his car during a police chase.

In 2018 there were 7407 black homicide victims. Assuming a comparable number of victims last year, those nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1% of all African-Americans killed in 2019

On the recent Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, 10 African-Americans were killed in drive-by shootings. The routine violence has continued—a 72-year-old Chicago man shot in the face on May 29 by a gunman who fired about a dozen shots into a residence; two 19-year-old women on the South Side shot to death as they sat in a parked car a few hours earlier; a 16-year-old boy fatally stabbed with his own knife that same day.

Last weekend, 80 people in Chicago were shot in drive-by shootings, 21 fatally, the victims overwhelmingly black. Police shootings are not the reason that blacks die of homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; criminal violence is.

The WSJ says the latest in a series of studies undercutting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers found that the more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater is the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. There is “no significant evidence of anti-black disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,” they concluded.

A 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects.  Research by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. also found no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings. Any evidence to the contrary fails to take into account crime rates and civilian behaviour before and during interactions with police.

The pattern may be repeating itself. Officers are being assaulted and shot at while they try to arrest gun suspects or respond to the growing riots.

Police precincts and courthouses have been destroyed with impunity, which will encourage more civilization-destroying violence. If officers back off law enforcement in minority neighbourhoods, the thousands of law-abiding African-Americans who depend on the police for basic safety will once again be the victims.


5 thoughts on “Research shows crime and suspect behaviour – not race – determine most police actions in the USA

  1. Anyone ever actually look at sentencing guidelines? All crimes are supposed to be equal, however, police allow police to drink and drive, commit crimes and not report them. “Priveledges” individuals; convicted of like crimes get lighter, or no time.
    Famous people (one example) steal an ambulance and get probation, while another would be charged for damages from ambulance taken out of service.
    This; is “disparity”. This proves, justice is NOT “blind”.
    Senators children aren’t charged with rapes, drugs, or other crimes. Police family members are ignored when caught. Yet, your articles “claim” there is no proof.
    Sentencing, alone, will disprove that! Not only in racial quota, but financial as well.


  2. Clive Thorp emailed me with this comment:

    Given your immense experience, I was disappointed to see how, in seeking to find and present material relevant to the George Floyd police incident in the US, you used a piece of work from a conservative Republican-funded think tank, taken up in the WSJ, suggesting that while it’s not liberal, it has a reputation for careful research. At least you balance up the WSJ with material from the Washington Post.

    However, the tenor of your blog post, with material from at least three sources, seems to me to be one of deflection, unconscious perhaps but actually ‘off topic’ for the ‘police violence’ of particular concern in relation to their actions against black Americans. You have found material about shooting, and that work is highly suspect.

    I would have thought, even if you did not feel you had the time to follow up references to the WSJ ‘research’, that its provenance would not pass your journalist’s ‘sniff test’ given the timing of its release and the implicit denial of a serious problem, which is not seriously related to whether white officers in crime situations are more likely to shoot black than non-black offenders.

    I followed your link to the PNAS and found the study in question, which itself is subject to several serious critiques. The most important really doesn’t require one to be a statistician – these guys were simply focusing on a very narrow subset of black/police interaction.

    They declare that everyone knows black people are shot at least twice as often as whites, but just want to say under their narrow technical assumptions (themselves very easily challenged by other researchers on the PNAS site), they can’t say white officers have a shooting bias.

    The same site has a study titled ‘Young unarmed non-suicidal male victims of fatal use of force are 13 times more likely to be black than white’ – perhaps also challengeable but in the way it is framed as a study, getting much closer to the issue that rightly offends blacks in the US.

    The Washington Post material you present deserves some comment from you, rather than just a quote. If – as your sources say – 13% of the US population is black, then telling us that nine unarmed blacks were shot vs 19 unarmed whites one year needs you to help – on a population basis, that’s more than 50 blacks compared to whites, where I’ve put them as 75% of the population.

    Those figures are seriously misleading, and we need you guys to point that out. I spent no more than 15 minutes looking at this issue on PNAS, and one paper notes that if you control for ‘suicidal’ whites, the disparity in shootings against blacks is much wider – ‘death by cop’ is apparently much more a white phenomenon.

    Almost all the research I can see in the PNAS free stuff is about shootings. George Floyd wasn’t shot, and the kind of beatings, neglect in the cells and racial profiling of young black men by US police forces is the major area of black society fear – shootings are awful, yes, but statistically much less likely than some other kind of police violence or racial treatment (like cuffing/arresting the black newsman filming a riot recently) that demonstrates a deep-seated bias in the wider US society.

    Maybe you could revisit the topic by finding some more balanced views and work on it, over the rest of the year. I heartily commend your effort to find some facts, but these were very selective, highly contestable and as presented, I don’t think they respond to the real problems blacks have with US police forces.


    Clive Thorp


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