I am a pastor, and I have dear minority brothers and sisters in our congregation who describe to me experiences with law enforcement very different from my own. How do I square what they describe to me with the stats in the story above? If I go with the stats, how will I be able to hear their stories, empathize, and shepherd? How will I weep with those who weep if the stats tell me that there really isn’t anything to weep about?
Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Heather MacDonald titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism.” In the essay, MacDonald provides compelling empirical evidence to prove that blacks are not shot or killed by police at a level disproportionately higher than whites. She writes:
In 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people, most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops last year (235), 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 U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 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 defines “unarmed” broadly to include such cases as a suspect in Newark, N.J., who had a loaded handgun in his car during a police chase. In 2018 there were 7,407 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. By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.
The essay made quite a splash and was making the rounds in conservative circles throughout the week. The eye-popping stat is at the beginning of the second paragraph: “The police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019.” Only nine in an entire year. I’ve seen that stat recurring around social media to support the argument that there really are no racial disparities in policing. Nothing to see here move along.
The problem I was having with this is that it contradicts the countless anecdotal experiences that I have heard from minority friends and read about from minority writers. All of them to a man describe contacts with the police that are more frequent and sometimes more forceful than anything I have ever experienced. Who’s right? The stats or the stories?
This isn’t just an academic question for me. I am a pastor, and I have dear minority brothers and sisters in our congregation who describe to me experiences with law enforcement very different from my own. How do I square what they describe to me with the stats in the story above? If I go with the stats, how will I be able to hear their stories, empathize, and shepherd? How will I weep with those who weep if the stats tell me that there really isn’t anything to weep about? (Rom. 12:15)
A couple of days ago, I came across an article that was really helpful. This article is by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer and is one of the most comprehensive studies on the question of race and policing:
Roland G. Fryer, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” Journal of Political Economy 127, no. 3 (June 1, 2019): 1210–61. [pre-pub version here]
This study shows two things that are relevant to the dilemma I just described. First, it shows that The Wall Street Journal’s stats about police shootings are basically correct. From Fryer’s study:
“We find no evidence of racial discrimination in officer-involved shootings. Investigating the intensive margin—the timing of shootings or how many bullets were discharged in the endeavor—there are no detectable racial differences” (p. 1214, underline mine).
When it comes to shootings, there are no major differences between whites and non-whites. While that is true, the second part is really important.
“On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police” (p. 1210). “On nonlethal uses of force, there are racial differences—sometimes quite large—in police use of force… As use of force increases from putting hands on civilians to striking them with a baton… the racial difference remains roughly constant” (p. 1258, underline mine).
Think about what this means. While there is no evidence of racial disparity in police shootings, there is evidence of racial disparity in non-lethal uses of force, which are far more common in the black community than the shootings themselves.