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On Tulsa, North Carolina, and the Charlotte Riots

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Black people were once again shot by police and so there are once again violent BLM riots in which people are dying. As usual, it is not clear that either police officer committed murder and, if they did, that it had anything to do with race.

The first incident occurred in Tulsa. Police encountered Terrence Crutcher who was unresponsive to their commands. They thought he had a weapon and ordered him to stop approaching his car. He continued to approach his vehicle, with his hands up, and they shot him.

The second incident occurred in North Carolina where police say that Keith Lamont Scott got out of his car with his gun and then refused to drop his weapon. The family says that he was sitting in his car reading a book when the police shot him. The police have recovered a gun from the scene but no book.

In my opinion, the second shooting was clearly justified while the first may not have been. Regardless, these are merely anecdotes. The media bombards us with at least one story like this every month and the public forms their views on police shootings based on these incidents.

This reliance on a limited number of anecdotes is problematic since a dozen or so police killings represents a minuscule fraction of the hundreds of people killed by police every year. This sample is tiny, and there is no reason to think that it is representative of police killings in general.

Across 5 databases of people killed by police, some done by the government, some by government watchdog groups, and some by major newspapers, we find 5 very similar estimates of the proportion of people killed by police who are black: 32%, 30%, 27%26%, and 25%. These figures average out to 28%.

Black people also account for 28% of individuals arrested by police, 39% of people arrested for violent crimes, and 50% of people arrested for murder.

Black Crime Rate

Given these numbers, Black people are, if anything, less likely to be killed by police than what you would expect given their crime rates.

Of course, some people will say that arrest rates for violent crimes are themselves biased.

This argument can easily be refuted using data from The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS is a survey carried out yearly in which the Department of Justice asks a random sample of approximately 90,000 households and 160,000 individuals about their experience with crime over the last year. The DOJ first asks participants if they have been the victim of a violent crime and, if they have, they are asked to answer various questions about the crime and the perpetrator of said crime.

Using this data, the proportion of violent criminals who are Black, according to the victims of violent crimes, can easily be calculated. We can then compare these figures to the offender rates by race in the FBI’s arrest data.

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“The National Crime Victimization Survey Validates the Uniform Crime Report’s Data on Black Crime“

Looking at the racial breakdown of people legally killed with guns drives this point home even further. Between 2008 and 2012, 59.1% of all individuals legally killed with a gun were Black. 41% of all people legally killed with a gun were Black people killed by other Black people. 92% of those legally killed with a gun by Black people were Black.

In other words, Black people are far more heavily overrepresented among the legal killing of Black people by Black people than they are among the killing of Black people by police.

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Unless you think that Black people are even more racist (against Black people) than police are, something else is probably going on here. Police are less likely to kill Black people than Black people are, and less likely to kill Black people than you would expect given their violent arrest rates, which do in fact reflect their violent crime rates.

This conclusion is backed up by experimental research. If you have police play highly realistic virtual reality games in which they confront violent criminals they pause before shooting someone who is clearly coming after them. This pause is longer when their attacker is Black.

This hesitancy to shoot Black people happens even though areas of the brain associated with perceiving danger light up more when police officers see Black attackers, suggesting that police officers are stopping themselves from appropriately responding to the threat they perceive when that threat comes from Black people.

Perhaps they are afraid of the media turning their act of self-defense into a news story. This would explain why research has found that police are more likely to shoot Black people when they are using a body camera.

To conclude, I don’t think that most of the anecdotes focused on by the media are examples of police unjustifiably killing Black people. Even if they were though, these stories are anecdotes, not evidence, and the deaths of, say, 15 people, a year tells us next to nothing in a nation of more than 300 million inhabitants. If we look at real data, it becomes apparent that we would expect more Blacks to be killed by cops, rather than fewer, if the police were truly color blind.