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Good Cop Bad Cop

Blacks are arrested in the U.S. at a disproportionately high rate relative to their share of the population, and they are killed by police at a disproportionately high rate as well. Does that prove that police target blacks unfairly? No, it depends on additional considerations not revealed by a simple comparison of police actions against blacks to their representation in the overall population.

This matter was put into perspective earlier this year by Heather Mac Donald in the Wall Street Journal (the link is to a Google search that should get around the WSJ paywall). Her analysis relies in part on a data base of fatal police shootings in 2015-16 maintained by the Washington Post, available here. Some of the most telling points noted by Mac Donald were the following:

  •  “… in 2015 officers killed 662 whites and Hispanics, and 258 blacks. (The overwhelming majority of all those police-shooting victims were attacking the officer, often with a gun.)” The most recent data for 2016 are incomplete, but of the 509 police shootings recorded so far this year, the proportion involving blacks appears to be roughly consistent with the 2015 figures.
  • There were 6,095 black homicide deaths in 2014—the most recent year for which such data are available—compared with 5,397 homicide deaths for whites and Hispanics combined. Almost all of those black homicide victims had black killers.
  • Over the past decade, according to FBI data, 40% of cop killers have been black. Officers are killed by blacks at a rate 2.5 times higher than the rate at which blacks are killed by police.
  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks were charged with 62% of all robberies, 57% of murders and 45% of assaults in the 75 largest U.S. counties in 2009, though they made up roughly 15% of the population there.
  • Such a concentration of criminal violence in minority communities means that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force.
  • A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police Department found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on “threat misperception”—that is, the mistaken belief that a civilian is armed.
  • A 2015 study by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway … found that, at a crime scene where gunfire is involved, black officers in the New York City Police Department were 3.3 times more likely to discharge their weapons than other officers at the scene.

It is a tragic fact that the black community is plagued disproportionately by crime and violence. However, that has nothing to do with the manner in which police perform their duties when confronted with danger. Rather, it has to do with historical inequities, poor educational institutions, dismal economic opportunities, and a number of misguided government policies. The latter include minimum wages that diminish opportunities for black workers to gain job experience, anti-poverty initiatives that destroy work incentives and undermine family structure, a failed public school system, and the misguided war on drugs. Drug prohibition ensnares those who face insidious alternatives to legal market activity, which is often unavailable. Unfortunately, all of these policies have a disproportionate effect on the black community.

Any assessment of police conduct must acknowledge the circumstances under which officers work. If a particular demographic is disproportionately involved in crime, and affected by crime, then it is reasonable to expect that police action will be disproportionately focused on that group. This is not prima facie evidence of racism in police work. Quite the contrary: it is evidence that the police are fulfilling their obligation to protect innocents within that demographic, even if other institutions are aggravating the social dysfunction.