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William Flynn Wallace foozler83 at gmail.com
Fri Jul 10 20:01:25 UTC 2020

Police Killings of Blacks: Here Is What the Data Say
[image: Tomiko Shine holding up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old
boy fatally shot last year by a  police officer in Cleveland, in a protest
Tomiko Shine holding up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy
fatally shot last year by a  police officer in Cleveland, in a protest
march.Credit...Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

By Sendhil Mullainathan

   - Oct. 16, 2015
      - 28

Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. Each killing raises a
disturbing question: Would any of these people have been killed by police
officers if they had been white?

I have no special insight into the psychology of police officers or into
the complicated forensics involved in such cases. Answering this question
in any single situation can be difficult and divisive. Two outside experts
this month concluded
for example, that the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in
Cleveland who was carrying a toy gun, was a “reasonable” if tragic
response. That will hardly be the last word on the subject.

As an economist who has studied racial discrimination, I’ve begun to look
at these deaths from a different angle. There is ample statistical evidence
large and persistent racial bias in other areas — from labor markets to
online retail markets. So I expected that police prejudice would be a major
factor in accounting for the killings of African-Americans. But when I
looked at the numbers, that’s not exactly what I found.

I’m not saying that the police in these specific cases are free of racial
bias. I can’t answer that question. But what the data does suggest is that
eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially
reduce the total number of African-American killings. Police bias may well
be a significant problem, but in accounting for why some of these
encounters turn into killings, it is swamped by other, bigger problems that
plague our society, our economy and our criminal justice system.

To understand how this can be, let us start with the statistics on police
killings. According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8
percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion
more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the
general population. While this data may be imperfect, other sources in
individual states or cities, such as in California or New York City, show
very similar patterns.

The data is unequivocal. Police killings *are *a race problem:
African-Americans *are* being killed disproportionately and by a wide
margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove
that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given

Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that
may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number
of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk:
The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a
mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat.
The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.

Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by
police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police
officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a
greater risk of a fatal shooting.

Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9
percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very
different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were
African-Americans. If police discrimination were a big factor in the actual
killings, we would have expected a larger gap between the arrest rate and
the police-killing rate.

This in turn suggests that removing police racial bias will have little
effect on the killing rate. Suppose each arrest creates an equal risk of
shooting for both African-Americans and whites. In that case, with the
current arrest rate, 28.9 percent of all those killed by police officers
would still be African-American. This is only slightly smaller than the
31.8 percent of killings we actually see, and it is much greater than the
13.2 percent level of African-Americans in the overall population.

If the major problem is then that African-Americans have so many more
encounters with police, we must ask why. Of course, with this as well,
police prejudice may be playing a role. After all, police officers decide
whom to stop or arrest.

But this is too large a problem to pin on individual officers.

First, the police are at least in part guided by suspect descriptions. And
the descriptions provided by victims already show a large racial gap:
Nearly 30 percent of reported offenders were black. So if the police simply
stopped suspects at a rate matching these descriptions, African-Americans
would be encountering police at a rate close to both the arrest and the
killing rates.

Second, the choice of where to police is mostly not up to individual
officers. And police officers tend to be most active in poor neighborhoods,
and African-Americans disproportionately live in poverty.

In fact, the deeper you look, the more it appears that the race problem
revealed by the statistics reflects a larger problem: the structure of our
society, our laws and policies.

The war on drugs illustrates this kind of racial bias. African-Americans
are only slightly more likely to use drugs than whites. Yet, they are more
than twice as likely to be arrested on drug-related charges. One reason is
that drug sellers are being targeted more heavily than users. With fewer
job options, low-income African-Americans have been disproportionately
represented in the ranks of drug sellers. In addition, the drug laws
penalize crack cocaine — a drug more likely to be used by African-Americans
— far more harshly than powder cocaine.

Laws and policies need not explicitly discriminate to effectively
discriminate. As Anatole France wrote centuries ago, “In its majestic
equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg
in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

This is not just about drugs or law enforcement. Poverty plays an essential
role in all of this. Jens Ludwig, an economist at the University of Chicago
who also directs the Crime Lab there, points out: “Living in a high-poverty
neighborhood increases risk of violent-crime involvement, and in the most
poor neighborhoods of the country, fully four out of five residents are
black or Hispanic.”

We will not sharply reduce police killings of African-Americans unless we
understand the social institutions that intimately tie race and crime. In
her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of
Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander argues that the American criminal
justice system itself is an instrument of racial oppression. “Mass
incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies,
customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the
subordinate status of a group defined largely by race,” she says.

Individual police officers did not set these economic policies that limited
opportunities or create the harsh sentencing policies that turn minor
crimes into lifetime sentences.

We should eliminate police prejudice because it is wrong and because it
undermines our democracy. It blights — and all too often destroys — lives.

But there are also structural problems underpinning these killings. We are
all responsible for those.

Sendhil Mullainathan is a professor of economics at Harvard. Follow him on
Twitter at @m_sendhil. <https://twitter.com/m_sendhil>
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