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Black and Unarmed: Behind the Numbers

What the Black Lives Matter movement misses about those police shootings.

For the last year or so, the Washington Post has been gathering data on fatal police shootings of civilians. Its database for 2015 is now complete. Commentators have taken the Post’s data as evidence that the police are gunning down unarmed blacks out of implicit bias. But a close examination of the Post’s findings presents a more complicated picture of policing and casts doubt on the notion that these shootings were driven by race.

The Post began its police shootings project in response to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a death that triggered days of rioting, the assassination of two New York City police officers, and a surge of support for the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Federal tallies of lethal police shootings are notoriously incomplete; the Post sought to correct that lacuna by searching news sites and other information sources for reports of officer-involved homicides. The results: As of Jan. 15, the Post had documented 987 victims of fatal police shootings in 2015, about twice the number historically recorded by federal agencies. Whites were 50 percent of those victims, and blacks were 26 percent. By comparison, whites are 62 percent of the U.S. population, and blacks, 13 percent. The ensuing debate has largely centered on whether the disproportionate number of black deaths was a result of police racism or the relatively high rate of crime in black neighborhoods, which brings black men into more frequent, and more fraught, encounters with the police.

In August of 2015 the Post zeroed in on unarmed black men, who the paper said were seven times more likely than unarmed white men to die by police gunfire. The article noted that 24 of the 60 “unarmed” deaths up to that date — some 40 percent — were of black men, helping to explain "why outrage continues to simmer a year after Ferguson." By year’s end, there were 36 unarmed black men (and two black women) and 31 unarmed white men (and one white woman) among the total 987 victims. The rate at which unarmed black men were more likely than unarmed white men to die by police gunfire had dropped, but was still six-to-one.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It is worth looking at the specific cases included in the Post’s unarmed victim classification in some detail, since that category is the most politically explosive. The “unarmed” label is literally accurate, but it frequently fails to convey highly-charged policing situations. In a number of cases, if the victim ended up being unarmed, it was certainly not for lack of trying. At least five black victims had reportedly tried to grab the officer’s gun, or had been beating the cop with his own equipment. Some were shot from an accidental discharge triggered by their own assault on the officer. And two individuals included in the Post’s “unarmed black victims” category were struck by stray bullets aimed at someone else in justified cop shootings. If the victims were not the intended targets, then racism could have played no role in their deaths.

In one of those unintended cases, an undercover cop from the New York Police Department was conducting a gun sting in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. One of the gun traffickers jumped into the cop’s car, stuck a pistol to his head, grabbed $2,400 and fled. The officer gave chase and opened fire after the thief again pointed his gun at him. Two of the officer’s bullets accidentally hit a 61-year-old bystander, killing him. That older man happened to be black, but his race had nothing to do with his tragic death. In the other collateral damage case, Virginia Beach, Virginia, officers approached a car parked at a convenience store that had a homicide suspect in the passenger seat. The suspect opened fire, sending a bullet through an officer’s shirt. The cops returned fire, killing their assailant as well as a woman in the driver’s seat. That woman entered the Post’s database without qualification as an “unarmed black victim” of police fire.

Unfortunately, innocent blacks like the elderly Mount Vernon man probably do face a higher chance of getting shot by stray police fire than innocent whites. But that is because violent crime in their neighborhoods is so much higher. The per capita shooting rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with its legacy of poverty and crime, is 81 times higher than in working-class Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a few miles away, according to the New York Police Department. This exponentially higher rate of gun violence means that the police will be much more intensively deployed in Brownsville, trying to protect innocent residents and gangbangers alike from shootings. If the police are forced to open fire, in rare instances a police bullet will go astray and hit a bystander. That is tragic, but that innocent’s chance of getting shot by the police is dwarfed by his chance of getting shot by criminals.

Other unarmed black victims in the Post’s database were so fiercely resisting arrest, judging from press accounts, that the officers involved could reasonably have viewed them as posing a grave danger. In October 2015, a San Diego officer was called to a Holiday Inn in nearby Point Loma, after hotel employees ejected a man causing a disturbance in the lobby. The officer approached a male casing cars in the hotel’s parking lot. The suspect jumped the officer and both fell to the ground. The officer tried to Tase the man, hitting himself as well. The suspect repeatedly tried to wrench the officer’s gun from its holster, according to news reports, and continued assaulting the officer after both had stood up. Fearing for his life, the officer shot the man. It is hard to see how race entered into that encounter. Someone who tries for an officer’s gun must be presumed to have the intention to use it. In 2015, three officers were killed with their own guns, which the suspects had wrestled from them. Similarly, in August, an officer from Prince George’s County, Maryland, pursued a man who had fled from a car crash. The man tried to grab the officer’s gun, and it discharged. The suspect continued to fight with the officer until he was Tased by a second officer and tackled by a third. The shot that was discharged during the struggle ultimately proved fatal to the suspect. In January, a sheriff’s deputy in Strong, Arkansas, responded to a pharmacy burglary alarm in the early morning. The burglar inside fought with the deputy for control of the deputy’s gun and it discharged. The suspect fled the store but was caught outside, at which point the deputy noticed the suspect’s gun injury and called an ambulance.

A police critic may reject the officers’ accounts of these deaths, invoking the cell phone videos that discredited police accounts in the shootings of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Viral videos of these events have generated an understandable skepticism towards police narratives. But equal skepticism is warranted towards witness accounts of allegedly unjustified officer shootings. Case in point: the persistent claim by bystanders that a peaceable Michael Brown, hands up, was gunned down in cold blood by Officer Darren Wilson. In fact, as forensic evidence and more credible eyewitnesses established, Brown had assaulted Wilson and tried to grab his gun. Until there is a critical mass of such resolved narratives, whether one trusts officer accounts more than bystander accounts, or vice versa, will depend on one’s prior assumptions regarding the police and the community.

In several cases in the Post’s “unarmed black man” category, the suspect had gained control of other pieces of an officer’s equipment and was putting it to potentially lethal use. In New York City, a robbery suspect apprehended in a narrow stairwell beat two detectives’ faces bloody with a police radio. In Memphis, Tennessee, a 19-year-old wanted on two out-of-state warrants, including a sex offense in Iowa, kicked open a car door during a car stop, grabbed the officer’s handcuffs, and hit him in the face with them.

In other instances in the Post’s “unarmed black man” category, the suspect’s physical resistance was so violent that it could reasonably have put the officer in fear for his life. A trespasser at a motel in Barstow, California, brought a sheriff’s deputy to the ground and beat him in the face so viciously that he broke numerous bones and caused other injuries. The suspect refused repeated orders to desist and move away. An officer in such a situation can’t know whether he will lose consciousness under the blows to his head; if he does, he is at even greater risk that his gun will be used against him.

An Orlando, Florida, officer was called about a fight in an apartment complex. The suspect fought so violently with the responding officer that the officer’s equipment had been torn off and was strewn about the scene, including his used Taser, baton, gun magazine, and wristwatch. In Dearborn, Michigan, a probation violator escaped from officers after committing a theft; later in the day, an officer approached him and he again took off running. A fight ensued, which left the officer with his gun belt loosened, his equipment from the belt on the ground, and his uniform ripped. The officer was covered with mud and sustained minor injuries. In Miami, a man crashed a taxi cab in the early morning hours and took off running onto a highway. During the fight, the driver bit the officer’s finger so hard that he nearly severed it; surgery was required to reattach it to the left hand. One can debate the tactics used and the moment when an officer would have been justified in opening fire, but these cases are more complicated and morally ambiguous than a simple “unarmed” classification would lead a reader to believe.

The Post’s cases do not support the idea that the police have a more demanding standard for using lethal force when confronting unarmed white suspects. According to the press accounts, only one unarmed white victim attempted to grab the officer’s gun. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a 50-year-old white suspect in a domestic assault call ran at the officer with a spoon; he was Tased and then shot. A 28-year-old driver in Des Moines, Iowa, led police on a chase, then got out of his car and walked quickly toward the officer, and was shot. In Akron, Ohio, a 21-year-old suspect in a grocery store robbery who had escaped on a bike did not remove his hand from his waistband when ordered to do so. Had any of these victims been black, police critics might well have conferred on them instant notoriety; instead, they are unknown.

While the nation was focused on the non-epidemic of racist police killings throughout 2015, the routine drive-by shootings in urban areas were taking their usual toll, including on children, to little national notice. In Cleveland, three children ages five and younger were killed in September. Five children were shot in Cleveland over the Fourth of July weekend. A seven-year-old boy was killed in Chicago that same weekend by a bullet intended for his father. In November, a nine-year-old in Chicago was lured into an alley and killed by his father’s gang enemies; the alleged murderer was reportedly avenging the killing of his own 13-year-old brother in October. In August a nine-year-old girl was doing her homework on her mother’s bed in Ferguson when a bullet shot into the house killed her. In Cincinnati in July, a four-year-old girl was shot in the head and a six-year-old girl was left paralyzed and partially blind from two separate drive-by shootings. A six-year-old boy was killed in a drive-by shooting on West Florissant Avenue in March in St. Louis, as protesters were again converging on the Ferguson Police Department to demand the resignation of the entire department. Ten children under the age of 10 were killed in Baltimore last year; 12 victims were between the age of 10 and 17. This is just a partial list of child victims. While the world knows who Michael Brown is, few people outside these children’s immediate communities know their names.

Without question, police officers must be constantly retrained in courtesy and respect; too often they develop boorish, callous attitudes towards civilians on the street. Some are unfit to serve. Some are surely racists. And if de-escalation training can safely reduce officer use of force further, it should be widely implemented. But the Black Lives Matter movement’s focus on shootings by police should not distract attention from the most serious use-of-force problem facing black communities: criminal violence. In 2014, there were 6,095 black homicide victims, more than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the population. The black homicide toll will be even higher in 2015. In over 90 percent of those black deaths, the killer was another black civilian. By all means, we must try to eliminate unjustified use of force by police. But as long as crime rates in black communities remain so high, officers will be disproportionately engaged there, with all the attendant risks of such deployment. Indeed, the incessant refrain that cops are racist could well increase the likelihood that black suspects will resist arrest, and that witnesses will be reluctant to cooperate.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the forthcoming “The War on Cops.”