The Far Podcast: The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police Officer-Civilian Encounters

I am posting to my blog an annotated script to my recent podcast/vlog on the myth of anti-black bias in police shootings. I provide references to all the sources I reference in that blog.

I also report a casualty in the moral panic over police shootings, the “voluntary” retraction of one of the many pieces of research I cited (which was announced after I recorded my podcast). The authors did something wonderful in their retraction letter: they cited even more research that supports my thesis—research going back to 1977. That extends the body of research back in time another decade. We now have 43 years of research countering the Black Lives Matter narrative. Amid the pressure to retract their findings (the reasons for which are absurd) the researchers did so with Galilean defiance. My guess is that it was better to voluntarily retract and draw attention to the letter than have the journal retract. I have not talked to the authors, so I cannot say for sure.

I do worry that the attacks on scholars will be expanded to include others. But here’s the deal: the research is out there, and no amount of official sanctioning will diminish the power of the facts and the analysis. These findings are as certain as anything can be in the social sciences. The question is really: who do you believe? Black Lives Matter, Democrats, and the corporate media? Or the social scientists and public health researchers who have actually examined the evidence using the most sophisticated methods to date? I know who I believe.

Jeremy Peters’ July 14, 2020 The New York Times story “Asked About Black Americans Killed by Police, Trump Says, ‘So Are White People’,” is an example of the scientific impoverishment of the mainstream media, many of which carried similar stories. Peter’s claim that, in his answer, “The president rejected the fact that Black people suffer disproportionately from police brutality.” This characterization misrepresents the president’s comment. 

Peters did get the scoop. The question was put to Trump by Catherine Herridge of CBS News: “Why are African-Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country?” It is a very poor question. Why is the question not about everybody who dies at the hands of law enforcement? If police brutality is a problem, then should we not be concerns about all the victims? Why would Trump reinforce the attempt to portray the victims of lethal police-civilian encounters as all or mostly black? The question disappears the white victims of lethal police violence. Moreover, the questioner doesn’t seem to recognize that she can easily answer her own question: because police confront violent offenders who are often armed and engaged in violence or are resisting in a manner that threatens the safety of the officer or others, it follows that black males are more likely on a proportional basis to fit that description.

“What a terrible question to ask,” Trump responded. Indeed. “So are white people,” he added.  “More white people, by the way.” The public is not supposed to know this or think about this. The media scrambled to confuse Trump’s point. 

Peters writes: “Statistics show that while more white Americans are killed by the police over all, people of color are killed at higher rates. A federal study that examined lethal force used by the police from 2009 to 2012 found that a majority of victims were white, but the victims were disproportionately Black. Black people had a fatality rate at the hands of police officers that was 2.8 times as high as that of white people.” 

So, right off the bat, we have to note that Peters confirms Trump is right: “more white Americans are killed by police”; “a majority of victims are white.” What did Trump say? In as many words, just that. That’s the buried lede: Trump is right: police kill many more whites than blacks every year. But this would mean that Black Lives Matter operates on a false premise and that does not advance the agenda of delegitimizing the police function in America. 

Let’s look at the last three complete years. I am using data from Statista. The data conflate race with ethnicity. White and black are racial categories. Hispanic designates an ethnicity. Most Hispanics are racially white. According to the 2010 census, 53% of Hispanics identified as white, whereas, in 2013, only 2.5% of Hispanics identified as black. However, I will not adjust the numbers in light of this since I do not know how the Hispanics in these numbers identified. There are also quite a few victims for whom either race or ethnicity is unknown, so we will have to put those aside. 

Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2020, by race

For 2017, leaving out those of unknown race or ethnicity, 903 persons were shot by the police. Of those, nearly a quarter were black. Whites were just over half of all those shot by police. Let’s stop and reflect on that: more than twice as many whites were shot and killed by the police than were blacks. There is a pattern. Check it out. In 2018, just over a quarter percent of those shot by the police were black. Whites, again, were just more than half of all those shot by police. In 2019, around 30 percent of those shot by the police were black. Whites were nearly half of all those shot by the police.

Over the three-year period 1,226 whites were killed by the police in contrast to 667 blacks killed by the police. Overall, blacks were just over a quarter of those killed during this period, whereas whites were almost half of those killed by the police at 49 percent. Trump is correct. More white people than black people are shot and killed by the police. Trump is not right by a little. He is right by a lot. I realize this information is mind blowing for those who have not studied the facts, but it is documented in every study of lethal police-civilian encounters. The police kill many more whites every year than they do blacks.  

One objection to these facts is that, plainly, there are more whites in America than there are blacks. The objection means to drag the argument only to the ground of proportionalities. Peters points out that “people of color” are killed at higher rates. Crucially, he notes, the victims are disproportionately black. This means that, relative to population, blacks are more likely to be shot by the police. 

The overrepresentation of blacks in police shootings becomes a racial disparity that is assumed to be explained by systemic racism. Disparities are prima facia evidence of discrimination. An inequality presumes an inequity. We hear this argument all the time. However, the inference is faulty, and I want to illustrate why before blowing it up with facts and the large literature showing that patterns of lethal police-civilian encounters cannot be explained by systemic racism.  

We know that 96 percent of those killed by the police are men (I calculated this from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report). We do not infer from this that lethal police-civilian encounters result from systemic misandry (dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against men). Why not? The reason men are overrepresented among shooting victims is obvious: men are overrepresented among those whom police confront as violent offenders, often armed and engaged in violence or resisting in a manner that threatens the safety of the officer or others. This is so obvious that nobody cares to even look at the data showing men are overrepresented in violent or otherwise serious criminal offending. 

The police do not go out looking for civilians to murder. They respond to crime. That’s their job. If a person puts himself in confrontation with a police officer, and he is a serious offender, armed and representing a threat to officers, then he is at greater risk of being shot by the police. 

It follows that, if black males are more likely that white males to put themselves in this position, then it follows that they are greater risk of being shot by the police compared to whites. As I said earlier, we could infer from the facts than blacks are shot and killed disproportionately that they are overrepresented in those criminal activities that put them at higher risk of being killed. Why would one automatically assume the disparity is explained by racist cops? 

The facts bear all this out—and any serious journalist who is prepared to ask the question should study the facts. Black males are responsible for more than half of all homicides and half of all robberies in the United States, two of the most serious violent crimes recorded by the FBI. Black males are responsible for 30 percent of robberies and 30 percent of aggravated assaults. Blacks males are only six percent of the population. (Uniform Crime Report, FBI)

In other words, a small proportion of the US population is responsible for a large proportion of the most serious violent offenses in America. It should be obvious from the facts of black overrepresentation in serious and violent crime that police are more likely to interact with blacks with a greater proportional likelihood of a lethal outcome than police are whites. 

It is striking, though, that even with this stark overrepresentation in serious crime, the police still kill more than twice as many whites as blacks every year. 

What Peters is doing in misrepresenting the president’s point is plug another data point in the alleged continuum of Trump’s racism. The objective is not only to mischaracterize the president’s comments. It is also to confuse the public over the reality of lethal police-civilian encounters, the very reality Trump is alerting the public to.  

My analysis is backed up by scientific research looking specifically at the role context and crime rates play in lethal police-civilian encounters. The evidence is clear. There is no systemic racism in lethal police-civilian encounters. In fact, there isn’t much evidence for it in the criminal justice system at large.

We have known this for more than thirty years. William Wilbanks, in The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, published way back in 1987, produced a comprehensive survey of contemporary research studies, searching for evidence of discrimination by police, prosecutors, judges, and prison and parole officers. Among the specific areas considered in his analysis are provisions of counsel, police deployment, use of deadly force, bail decisions, plea bargaining, sentencing patterns, and inmate classification and discipline. Wilbanks finds that, although individual cases of racial prejudice and discrimination do occur in the system, there is insufficient evidence to support a charge of systematic racism against blacks in the criminal justice system. Wilbanks summarizes: “At every point, from arrest to parole, there is little or no evidence of an overall racial effect.”

Robert Sampson and Janet L. Lauritsen, in a comprehensive review of studies of the criminal justice system, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Criminal Justice in the United States,”published in the pages of Crime and Justice in 1997, find “little evidence that racial disparities result from systematic, overt bias.”

Heather Mac Donald’s 2016 book The War on Cops, yet another comprehensive review of the evidence, finds no evidence of racially biased policing.

Roland Fryer, in “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2018, but available in 2016, finds no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account when turning his attention to the most extreme use of force, i.e. officer-involved shootings.

Joseph Cesario and colleagues, reported in 2018, in “Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force? Analyses of Officer-Involved Fatal Shootings in 2015–2016,” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that, adjusting for crime, no systematic evidence of anti-black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects. The authors conclude that, when analyzing all shootings, that exposure to police, given crime rate differences, accounts for the higher per capita rate of fatal police shootings for blacks.

Charles Menifield and colleagues find, in “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?” published in Public Administration Review in 2019, that white officers appear to be no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers. The pushback here is the argument that it is the racism endemic in policing that turns black cops into racist killers. In other words, black cops are racists against other blacks. 

In “Disparity does not mean bias: making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks,” published in Journal of Crime and Justice, in 2019, Brandon Tregle and colleagues, when focusing on violent crime arrests or weapons offense arrests, find that blacks appear less likely to be fatally shot by police officers.

David Johnson and colleagues, in “Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings,” in the pages of the 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, find that it is the rate of violent crime, not the race of the officer, that determines the race dynamic of police shootings. What Johnson is speaking to, as was Cesario, is the “exposure hypothesis,” serious criminal activity increases the likelihood of officer-civilian interaction and this influences the frequency of policing shootings. As do Tregle and colleagues, Johnson and associates find that, taking crime rates into account, the bias in shootings appears to be against whites.

After producing my podcast, Johnson and Colleagues voluntarily retracted their article. Here part of what they said in their retraction explanation: “Although our data and statistical approach were valid to estimate the question we actually tested (the race of civilians fatally shot by police), given continued misuse of the article (e.g., MacDonald, 2020) we felt the right decision was to retract the article rather than publish further corrections.”

In the era of cancel culture, we should approach the voluntary character of the retraction with caution. The researchers were assailed not for the actual research, which concerned officer characteristics related to the race of civilians fatally shot by police, but for the impression critics claimed the paper conveyed that it said something about racial disparities in the probability of being shot. In other words, the conclusion was politically incorrect. The authors had issues a clarification about the matter. Apparently a clarification wasn’t good enough. They were to suffer the humiliation of a retraction.

You will note the MaDonald 2019 and 2020 references in the retraction. Indeed, they are front and center. These are references to Heather MacDonald’s essay “False testimony,” for the City Journal (Manhattan Institute), and op-ed “The myth of systemic police racism,” published in The Wall Street Journal. That the authors highlighted these particular “misuses” of their article by the much maligned author of The War on Cops suggests the character of the pressure that was put on the researchers to retract their article. MacDonald is the scourge of the Black Lives Matter countermovement against public safety. Her open defense of law enforcement and criticism of race identiarianism has made her the witch at the center of the moral panic.

That the retraction was forced by politics is furthermore suggested by this passage in the retraction statement: “Relative to the proportion of Black civilians in the U.S., Black Americans are shot more than we would expect. However, relative to various proxies for the propor- tion of Black civilians who commit violent crime, Black Americans are not shot more than we would expect. This has been consistently shown for the majority of fatal shootings (90-95%) where the citizen shot is an immediate threat to an officer or other citizen (Cesario et al., 2019; Fyfe, 1980; Goff et al., 2016; Inn et al., 1977; Tregle et al., 2019; Worrall et al., 2020), though some evidence has been presented that racial bias may be present in the remaining types of shootings (Ross et al., in press). The lack of racial disparities once violent crime rates are taken into account has also been shown in papers using more complex analytic approaches than proportion comparisons (Fryer, 2016; Mentch, 2020).”

In this passage, the authors are essentially telling readers that, while their article was being used in ways their critics did not like, the inference that systemic racism is not found in research controlling for relevant factors is nonetheless correct. All the more shameful that they claim that clarification was insufficient, in my view. However, at the same time, the passage alerts readers to research dating back to 1977 that supports the inference they were alleged to have conveyed. This list is quite helpful to readers, but only if they note it and follow up. Here are the full references to the research they cite: Andres Inn and associates’ 1977 “The effects of suspect race and situation hazard on police officer shooting behavior,” in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology; James Fyfe’s 1980 “Geographic correlates of police shooting: A microanalysis,” in  Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency; Phillip Goff and associates’ 2016 “The science of justice: Race, arrests, and police use of force,” Center for Policing Equity; Lucas Mentch’s 2020 “On racial disparities in recent fatal police shootings,” Statistics and Public Policy; John Worrall and associates’ 2020 “The effect of suspect race on police officers’ decisions to draw their weapons,” Justice Quarterly. These references only strengthen the thesis of my podcast, so I appreciate the care the researchers took in their retraction letter.

Katelyn Jetelina and associates, in “Dissecting the Complexities of the Relationship Between Police Officer–Civilian Race/Ethnicity Dyads and Less-Than-Lethal Use of Force,” published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2017, find that, when controlling for other factors, the observed significant relationships between race/ethnicity dyads and use of force dissipated.

We have to be honest here. The cause of Black Lives Matter is not informed by science. The media and fellow travelers either do not know the evidence or they carry on in the face of the evidence. 

Ex-cop Reddit Hudson said in a Vox article in 2016, “Racism is woven into the fabric of our nation. At no time in our history has there been a national consensus that everyone should be equally valued in all areas of life.” 

The first sentence is an evil metaphor. It’s like saying racism is in our DNA. If racism is woven into the fabric of the nation or in our DNA the only option is to throw away the fabric or kill the organism—i.e. dismantle or destroy the country. The second sentence is false. There is a national consensus that everyone should be equally valued in all areas of life. Nothing could be more obvious that that. It is also obvious that there are people who hate America and want to dismantle or destroy it. 

Finally, when Joseph Cesario says “not being involved in criminal activity is far and away the best way to not be shot by the police,” many will have a knee-jerk response. They will hear this as “blaming the victim.” As I have written about in my blog, “blaming the victim” is a terrible way to characterize the perpetrators of criminal violence who strike terror in the residents of our most vulnerable communities. This is the pathology of left-idealism, an ideology that heroizes the criminal as the pitiable monster of unjust social structures.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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