Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Supposed War on Blacks
The myth of anti-Black police brutality seems to be making the rounds again. Recently, two separate incidents in which Blacks were killed by police were caught on video tape.
In the first incident, police were called after Alton Sterling allegedly threatened to shoot someone. He resisted arrest and ended up pinned to the ground. One officer yelled “He’s got a gun!” and then one of the two officers present shot him several times. Whether or not he was, in fact, reaching for a gun in his pocket is impossible to tell from the angle from which the videos of the incident were filmed.
The video of the second incident begins right after Philando Castile was shot several times by police. Philando’s girlfriend, who video taped the incident, claims that the police pulled her over for a broken taillight. They asked for licence and registration. Philando reached for his pockets to get the requested documents while telling police that he was, legally, carrying a firearm on him. At this point she says the police instantly began shooting him. The police officer who did the shooting, by contrast, says that he told Philando to remove his hands from near his pocket after being told that he had a gun, then Philando continued to reach for the area where the gun was anyhow, and that is why he was shot.
Who is telling the truth? I have no clue. That being said, even if Philando was not responding to the officers request it seems highly unlikely that he was trying to do anything other than getting his licence. Of course, the officer could not know that in the moment, and had to make a split second decision, but this death is obviously extremely unfortunate regardless of which story is more accurate.
Alton Sterling’s case is a little different. His arrest record includes everything from domestic abuse, to the illegal possession of firearms, to battery, to burglary, to carnal knowledge of a juvenile. On top of this, the police were called because he was, allegedly, threatening to kill people with a gun. Given all this, the idea that Alton was reaching for a gun with the intention of killing people is less than far fetched. If he wasn’t, the killing was not justified, but the degree of tragedy involved is obviously not the same.
Many have been quick to blame both of these incidents on anti-Black racism. The fact that neither video gives us enough evidence to determine whether or not the police were justified in their actions, or the fact that the officer who shot Philando was Asian, not White, does not deter them.
These stories seem destined for the same fate as the Trayvon story, the Freddie Grey Story, and the Mike Brown story. People pushing the idea that Blacks are being systemically and unjustly killed by police have a strong tendency to focus on colorful (and often dishonest) anecdotes. This is for good reason.
A quick look at the relevant statistics quickly dispels notion that the police are waging some kind of war against Blacks. In any society, a certain proportion of people who interact with police are going to end up being killed by police. This will be for both just and unjust reasons. An even larger proportion of people being arrested for violent crimes are going to end up being killed by police, and a still larger proportion of people being arrested for homicide will end up being killed by police.
To test whether or not there really is a bias against Blacks in police killings, we can compare the proportion of people who are arrestd for all crime, violent crime, and homicide, who are Black to the proportion of people who are killed by police who are Black. If the “system” really is biased against Blacks, Blacks should make up a larger proportion of people killed by police than they do criminals.
We therefore need two sets of data: one on crime and one on police killings. Unfortunately, both of these sorts of data are controversial.
The most obvious place to look for crime data is the FBI’s uniform crime report which is based on arrest data. However, some people will claim that there is bias in the arrest numbers as well and that, in reality, Blacks are less criminal than what arrest data would suggest.
This argument can easily be refuted using data from the The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS is a survey carried out yearly by the Department of Justice in which a random sample of approximately 90,000 households and 160,000 individuals are asked about their experience with crime over the last 6 months. Participants are asked if they have been the victim of a violent crime in the last 6 months. If they have then they are asked to answer various questions about the crime and the perpetrator of said crime. These bi-yearly interviews are combined on a yearly basis.
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 crime rates suggested by the FBI’s arrest data.
As can be seen, the two reports come to essentially identical conclusions. Arrest data, at least for violent crime, is not biased against Black people.
Data from the 2014 UCR shows that Blacks accounted for roughly 51% of murders, 38% of all violent criminals, and 28% of all persons arrested (2014, Crime in the United States, Table 43).
These numbers are highly representative of Black crime rates in general, as can be seen by comparing this to aggregated data from each UCR published from 1995 to 2014.
So, we have some good crime data, now let’s talk about data on who police kill. There are various sources on police killings. Which one is best is a matter of controversy, but it doesn’t really matter, because they all show basically the same thing in terms of the proportion of people killed by police who are Black.
To begin with, the Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan analyzed UCR data and found that 32% of those killed by police were black (Mullainathan, 2015).
Similarly, the sociologist Peter Moskos analyzed data from the website Killedbypolice.net, which claims to be “The most accurate, most comprehensive and always up-to-date list of people killed by U.S. law enforcement officers.” The site basically aggregates all news stories in the country about someone being killed by a cop. The site is supposed to offer a rigorous alternative to biased and lazy statistics released by the government. Using this data set, Moskos found that 30% of those killed by police in 2013-2015 were Black (Moskos, 2015).
A third source we can use is the CDC’s Compressed Mortality Database. This database’s focus isn’t on crime but, rather, the causes of American deaths. However, one such cause is being killed by law enforcement (excluding legal execution). Using this data, we can see that the CDC estimates Blacks to have been 27% of those killed by police between 1999 and 2014 (Compressed Mortality Database).
Thus, across multiple data sources, we see that, if anything, Blacks make up a lower proportion of those killed by police than what we would expect given their crime rates. In light of this, there is no justifiable reason for supposing that the police are running around unjustly killing Blacks.
This does not mean that the police never unjustly kill Black people or that any particular anecdote is false. But it does mean that we can not infer from any anecdote the sort of generalized narratives which BLM types are prone to pushing.
[Editor's Note: Of all of the felonious killings of police officers from 2005-2014, 40% of the perpetrators were black.]