John R. Lott, Jr.,
Democrats have a new hero in Beto O’Rourke, who is campaigning against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Hatred for Cruz is enough to get Democrats excited by the prospect of unseating him, but O’Rourke has also won them over on Wednesday by campaigning against police brutality toward blacks.
O’Rourke asserts that law enforcement members are killing unarmed, black children at a “frightening level” and aren’t being held accountable. He expresses approval for “peaceful, non-violent protests, including taking a knee at a football game.”
When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the National Anthem a couple of years ago, he wanted to protest police “getting away with murder” of black people. Over the weekend, whole NFL football teams protested police racism against blacks. Protests during the National Anthem have spread to the NBA and major league baseball. In St. Louis last week, after a white officer was acquitted for shooting a black man, protestors chanted “hey ho, hey ho, these racist cops have got to go.” President Trump has called out these protestors, but the perception of many is that racism explains why white officers shoot blacks.
The media has helped create a biased perception. In a recent study, the Crime Prevention Research Center finds that when a white officer kills a suspect, the media usually mentions the race of the officer. This is rarely true when the officer is black.
Polls of blacks paint a bleak picture of relations between blacks and the police, but there is other evidence based on behavior that, overall, blacks trust police at least as much as whites do.
A recent Quinnipiac survey of New York City found that blacks were 11 percentage points more likely to approve of the police in their neighborhood than of the NYPD as a whole. The police that blacks know best, they like.
If blacks really believe that police are racist, one may think that black victims would be less likely to report crimes committed against them. After all, they may doubt the commitment of the officers to solving the crimes. They may think that officers will engage in profiling and arrest an innocent black suspect.
In fact, blacks don’t shy away from reporting crimes to the police. Our report, comparing Department of Justice survey data to crimes reported to the police, shows that from 2008 to 2012 blacks were actually more likely than whites to report violent crimes committed against them to the police — 9 percentage points more likely than whites (54 percent to 45 percent).
That higher rate of reporting applies to all income groups and to both urban and suburban areas. And it’s not just that blacks report more crime because they experience more of it. This higher rate of reporting even holds true in areas where whites face higher violent crime rates than blacks do.
This trust appears to be well-placed. White police officers aren’t killing defenseless blacks just because they can.
We found 2,699 police shootings from 2013-2015. We couldn’t rely on FBI data, which consists of cases voluntarily provided by police departments. The FBI lists only 1,366 suspect deaths over the same 3-year period. Our more comprehensive list comes from use of Lexis/Nexis, Freedom of Information Act requests, internet news searches, and several online databases.
The FBI database not only misses half of these cases, it also misses important information that is necessary to understanding why the officers resorted to deadly force, such as whether the suspect was armed or killed while in the act of committing a crime. The FBI disproportionately includes cases from heavily minority areas, giving a misleading picture of the frequency at which blacks are shot.
Our estimates also account for violent crime rates, demographics of the city and police department, characteristics of the suspect and officer, the rate at which police in the state are killed, the educational requirements of the department, and many other factors.
The black officers that we identified were more likely to kill black suspects than were their white colleagues, but the differences were not always statistically significant, meaning that we can’t be sure they were real. At the very least, there’s no evidence of white officers disproportionately shooting blacks.
Fortunately, there are steps that we can take to try to reduce the killings. When more police are present at the scene, suspects face reduced odds of being killed. The difference is about 14 to 18 percent for each additional officer. Officers may feel more vulnerable if they are alone at the scene, making them more likely to resort to deadly force. By the same token, suspects are more likely to be emboldened and resist arrest when fewer officers are present.
Police unionization may have had the largest effect, apparently making suspects at least 65% more likely to be killed. This needs more studying, but it could be due to the fact that unions shield their officers from scrutiny or other factors such as laws that delay prosecutors questioning officers. This may make officers more willing to shoot when their own safety feels at all jeopardized.
Many support requiring that officers wear body cameras. We surveyed 900 police departments, 162 of which reported their officers used body cameras. But police acted the same regardless of whether they are wearing the cameras. The Obama administration argued that fear of being recorded would give many officers pause before misbehaving, but that only matters if the officers are misbehaving.
O’Rourke is contributing to a dangerous fiction that prejudiced white officers are going out and disproportionately killing black men. But that doesn’t mean that measures can’t be taken to reduce police shootings. The most obvious step would be to increase the number of officers, in the hopes that more will be present at the scenes of these incidents.
* Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, and he co-authored the research discussed here with Professor Carlisle Moody from the College of William & Mary. The research is available here (https://ssrn.com/abstract=2870189).