The United States is in an uproar over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. There have been demonstrations in over 400 US cities, and looting and arson in every major city. Why are so many people in the streets? Because they believe that American society is systematically racist and that the police brutalize and even casually murder black men.
The media constantly tell people the police are racist, and many people think the gruesome video of the death of George Floyd bears this out. But let’s look at the facts.
Every year, American police officers have about 370 million contacts with civilians. Most of the time nothing happens, but 12 to 13 million times a year, the police make an arrest. How often does this lead to the death of an unarmed black person? We know the number thanks to a detailed Washington Post database of every killing by the police. What is your guess as to the number of unarmed blacks killed by the police every year? One hundred? Three hundred? Last year, the figure was nine.
That number is going down, not up. In 2015, police killed 38 unarmed blacks. In 2017, 21. What about white people? Last year, police killed 19 unarmed whites, in addition to the 9 unarmed blacks. We know the number of black and white people arrested every year, so it is possible to make an interesting calculation. The chances of being unarmed, arrested, and then killed by the police are higher for whites than for blacks. For both races, it’s very rare: One out of 292,000 arrests for blacks, and out of 283,000 arrests for whites. This is hardly what we would expect from the way the media report these deaths.
What about the people the police kill who are armed?
Since 2015, when the Post began tracking these numbers, the police have killed about 1,000 people a year. Every year, about one quarter of them are black. This is about twice their share of the population, which is 13 percent. Is this proof of police racism? No. The more likely explanation is that blacks are more likely than whites to act in violent, aggressive ways that give the police no choice but to shoot them. In 2018, the most recent year for which we have statistics, blacks accounted for 37 percent of all arrests for violent crimes, 54 percent of all arrests for robbery, and 53 percent of arrests for murder. With so many blacks involved in this kind of violent crime, that blacks should account for 25 percent of the people killed by the police seemslike a surprisingly low figure.
There is another perspective on police killings of civilians. Every year, criminals kill about 120 to 150 police officers. And we know from this FBI table that every year, on average, about 35 percent of the officers are killed by blacks. So, to repeat, blacks are 13 percent of the population and account for 25 percent of the people killed by police. But if police were killing them in proportion to their threatening, violent, criminal behavior, they would be a greater percentage of the people killed by the police.
Some people believe that high arrest rates for blacks for violent crime reflect police racism. They believe that biased police arrest innocent blacks and let guilty whites go, and that is why the black arrest percentages are so high. That’s not plausible. Are we supposed to believe that when police get a report of a white robber or assailant, they don’t bother to try to catch him? Or that when they get a report of a black robber, they go out and arrest an innocent young black? Police are rewarded for making arrests that end in convictions, not for indulging in prejudice.
And there is very strong evidence that refutes the idea of “racist” arrest rates. Every year, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts what is called the National Crime Victimization Survey. This is a survey of a nationally representative sample of no fewer than 160,000 people. They are asked about their experiences as victims of violent crime, and are always asked the race of the attacker. Many of these crimes are not reported to the police, so the numbers in this survey are always greater than the numbers of arrests for the same violent crimes. However—and this is a crucial point—the racial proportions of arrests track the racial proportions of the national survey very closely. For example, every year, the American public says that about half the muggers were black. Therefore, when half the muggers the police arrest are black, police are doing what they are supposed to do: arrest criminals without regard to race.
There have been careful scientific studies of possible police bias against blacks—and Hispanics. Last year, this paper and, later, this correction were published in the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The researchers built a sophisticated database for all the fatal police shootings in 2015, and looked at them from every possible racial angle. They found that the race of people shot had no bearing on their likelihood of being shot, and that non-white officers behaved no differently from white officers. They therefore concluded that “increasing diversity among officers by itself is unlikely to reduce racial disparity in police shootings.”
Roland Fryer is a black economist, and the youngest person ever to get tenure at Harvard. He was angry after the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, so he did his own research on the use of deadly force by police in 10 big-city police departments police killing. His detailed study of 1,332 police shootings—in which he carefully compared the circumstances of each killing—found no evidence of police bias. If anything, police were more likely to shoot at non-threatening whites than at non-threatening blacks. He said, this was “the most surprising research result of my career.”
Why was Professor Fryer surprised? Because he believed what the media say about race and crime, and the media are often biased. Here is a particularly relevant example. On June 3, in the midst of the rioting over the death of George Floyd, the New York Times published a long, detailed article with this headline: “Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites.” This sounds like a clear case of horrific police bias, and this is the impression the Times clearly wanted to convey. However, the article included nothing about race differences in crime rates or arrest rates. This is like reporting that the police were seven times more likely to use force against men living in Minneapolis than against women, and getting outraged over anti-male bias. Needless to say, men in Minneapolis are much more likely to be subjected to police use of force because they commit far more crime and are arrested far more frequently. No one would conclude that disproportionate use of force against men was a result of anti-male bias.
The only way to determine whether the Minneapolis police were biased would be to do the kind of research Roland Fryer did for police killings: make side-by-side comparisons of arrests of blacks and whites and see if police used force more often when they arrested whites. We don’t have those data, but we do have graphs from a Minneapolis police department report on crime between 2009 and 2014.
This one shows the racial percentages of victims, suspects, and arrests for an aggregate of violent crimes: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
Recolored graph, with black represented as black, etc.
Since we know the percentage of each race in the population Minneapolis, it is easy to determine that compared to all other races combined, blacks were 12 times more to be suspects in these crimes and 9.5 times more likely to be arrested. Given this high rate of contact with the police, can it be surprising that a black person is seven times more likely than a white person to be treated forcefully by an officer? If anything, the multiple of seven seems low. Once again, the only reasonable conclusion is that police are reacting to behavior, not race. For the Times not to have included this kind of information is either grossly negligent or just plain dishonest. Reckless reporting gives people a completely false impression of the police.
An SFGate article about policing in San Francisco publicized a similar finding that seems to prove police racism: that over a five year period, blacks were eight times more likely than whites to be charged with resisting arrest. But again, there were no data on racial differences in arrests. Like the article in the Times, this creates a dangerously false impression of how the police do their jobs.
In America’s big cities, racial differences in crime rates can be staggering. Any report on crime that ignores these differences is likely to be misleading. This dull looking New York City report for 2019 contains some remarkable graphs. Take this one for murder.
The bars show the percentages of people of different races who are victims of murder, murder suspects, and eventually arrested for murder. As you can see, Asians and whites don’t figure very high in any category, but blacks were 57 percent of victims, 62 percent of suspects, and 58 percent of arrests for murder. The numbers for Hispanics are high, too.
Since we know the racial composition of the city, a simple calculation shows us that blacks are 17 times more likely than whites to be victims, 31 times more likely than whites to be suspects, and 26 times more likely to be arrested. The Hispanic multiples are high, too, seven times more likely than whites to be victims, 11 times more likely to be suspects, and 12 times more likely to be arrested.
Here are the figures for robbery.
Blacks are 22 times more likely than whites to be suspects and 17 times more likely to be arrested.
A shooting is when someone fires a gun and a bullet strikes someone, whether it kills him or not.
Blacks are hugely overrepresented: 42 times more likely than whites to be victims, 46 times more likely to be suspects, and 39 times more likely to be arrested. These crimes are almost exclusively the work of blacks and Hispanics. Similarly eye-opening data are available for other big cities. These data are as easily available to the press as they are to us. Have you ever seen them in the papers or on television?
What about bias in the justice system after criminals are arrested? It’s hard to find nation-wide or comprehensive studies on this subject, but in 2017, the city of San Francisco hired independent researchers to look into what happens after an arrest. It’s true that when they are arrested for the same crimes, whites are more likely to have charges dropped, and if convicted, more likely to get lesser sentences. Is this proof of systemic bias? No. It’s because blacks are more likely to have prior convictions, to have an open case against them, to have been out on parole when arrested, etc.
What matters are the characteristics of each case. The report concluded: “For nearly all of the outcomes we study, simple statistical controls for predetermined case characteristics can fully or mostly account for observed disparities, and in some instances they over-explain disparities.” In other words, if you compare identical cases, there is essentially no bias against blacks. The phrase “over-explain disparities” means that in some cases, blacks received more lenient treatment than whites in similar circumstances.
It is important to recall that in not one of these celebrated “black lives matter” cases—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner—was there any proof that racist intent of any kind led to their deaths. Furthermore, in all but one, a criminal trial or Justice Department investigation found that the killing was justified. In the Garner case, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who brought the 400-pound Garner to the ground in a neck hold, was fired from the New York City Police Department, but maintained he had done nothing wrong and planned to sue the department for reinstatement. It is reasonable to conclude that, once again, what led to an unfortunate death was behavior, not race.
Something else that has an important bearing on cases like this is resisting arrest. One of the best ways to turn an arrest for a minor crime into a felony case and—if things go wrong, into front-page news—is to fight the police. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and now, George Floyd were all resisting arrest when they died. It is safe to say that if they had followed officer commands, they would not have died.
Are there racial differences in the rates at which suspects resist arrest? Again, comprehensive data are not available, but a study in New York City found that in misdemeanor drug-possession cases, blacks were nearly twice as likely to face an additional charge of resisting arrest. If this is representative of the country as whole, it is yet more evidence that black criminal behavior differs from that of whites not only in frequency of contact with the police, but in the crucially important area of whether they are likely to become violent when arrested for a minor crime.
In conclusion, let me be clear about one thing: I am not trying to justify what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. He was a big guy, and he was resisting arrest to the point that even with cuffs on, a team of three officers couldn’t get him into a squad car. Police had a problem to deal with, but keeping a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes may have been homicide.
But the solution is to investigate the officer, charge him if there are grounds to do so, and punish him if he is guilty. The solution is not to demonstrate and riot against police racism, when there is hardly any evidence of any kind of system-wide bias. There may be some bad apples, but the system is working as it should: In the overwhelming majority of cases, police deal with criminals properly, without regard to race.
There is a tremendous head of steam built up behind the idea of police bias. But it’s not the police who need reform. It’s the media. This crisis will not end until the press stops presenting a false and dangerously inflamed picture of the American justice system. Rioting and looting are wrong no matter what the reason. Rioting and looting over an illusion—because of something that isn’t even true—is an American tragedy.