The shooting death of Daunte Wright has put police shootings back in the news, at the same time as the public awaits a verdict on the killing of George Floyd.
One frequent observation in law enforcement circles is that media coverage of these tragedies has led people to overestimate the number of black men killed by police. Even one is too many. But exactly how bad does the public think the problem is?
Police Brutality Against Black People Happens Much Less Than the Public Thinks
According to Mapping Police Violence, 27 black men were killed by police in 2019. But a study by the Skeptic Research Center investigated how knowledgeable people were when it comes to fatal police shootings. The results are depressing; the public massively overestimates the number of police killings of black men.
The available data on police shootings of unarmed Black men is incomplete; however, existing data indicate that somewhere between 13-27 unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019. Adjusted for the number of law enforcement agencies that have yet to provide data, this number may be higher, perhaps between 60-100. Yet, over half (53.5%) of those reporting “very liberal” political views estimated that 1,000 or more unarmed Black men were killed, a likely error of at least an order of magnitude.
The researchers put it dryly. “Our overall findings indicate that people are uninformed regarding the available data on fatal police shootings in the US.”
Why Is This Happening?
The New York Post has a theory about why this is happening:
The media has the power to shape perceptions — and when they consistently prejudge, distort and exclusively focus on high-profile cases involving white police officers and black suspects (such as Jacob Blake most recently), it creates an illusion of pervasive police violence perpetrated toward African Americans. Meanwhile, unarmed white people killed by cops […] are ignored by the media. Consequently, the public likely perceives this problem to be almost nonexistent.
Political science doctoral candidate Zach Goldberg has shown in his research, unarmed black victims of fatal police shootings generate staggeringly nine times as many news search results compared to white victims.
People who get their news from Twitter might also read something like this:
It is inaccurate to say that there is an endless list of black lives lost to police violence. But according the the research, many people believe it.
There is No Evidence That White Officers Routinely Kill Black People Out of Racist Animus
As John McWhorter points out in an excellent article, police violence is not a white-on-black problem. People of every race are killed by police, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad reasons.
Despite these facts, the Skeptic Research Center Report finds that everyone overestimates the percentage of people killed by police that were black. This effect is particularly pronounced amount political liberals, but it is not exclusive to them.
Particularly striking is the finding that very liberal respondents believe that 60.4% of people killed by police were black. The actual percentage is 24%. This may be explained by benign reasons, such as a greater concern about racism or differential media consumption. But clearly, people believe that the problem of police violence against blacks is worse than it actually is.
McWhorter then tackles the following oft-quoted thesis: black people make up just 12% of the population but account for a quarter of police killings. Therefore, there is systemic racism in policing. McWhorter says, “these figures are not necessarily evidence of police racism.” His answer is worth quoting in full:
The socioeconomic gap between blacks and whites is doubtless an important contributing factor. Police are called to poor neighborhoods more often, so poverty makes someone more likely to encounter law enforcement. From the 1970s through the 1990s, many conservatives argued that too many black people were on welfare. Liberals and progressives replied that, firstly, more white people were on welfare and that, secondly and more importantly, a greater proportion of the black population is on welfare because a greater proportion of black people are mired in poverty. In this context, former Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery observed that black people are about two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by cops than their representation in the population would predict. Today, the percentage of black people living in poverty is about two-and-a-half times that of whites (22 percent and nine percent, respectively, in 2018).
He concludes: ” Entrenched socioeconomic disparities should concern us all, and are as intolerable as cop murders. But the idea that the police murder out of racist animus is much less clear than we are often led to suppose.”
Twitter is an awful place to look for facts about current events. Here are a couple of examples regarding police use of force.