27 Black Men Were Killed By Police In 2019

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.

The Counter-intuitive Liberal Case to Fund the Police

Matthew Yglesias has a piece in Vox titled, “The Case for Hiring More Police Officers.” In it, he sets forth a liberal rationale, not for defunding the police, but for doing the opposite. It is thoughtful and logically written. Yglesias also makes the point that hiring more police would do more than reduce crime; it would also be politically savvy for liberal politicians. His colleague German Lopez has written about President Trump’s efforts to defund the police. Both are worth a read.

The Idea Is Popular

Yglesias wrote his piece in February of 2019, after Black Lives Matter became a movement, but before the death of George Floyd. He cited several studies showing the idea was popular at that time, both with Americans in general and with the black community. But would it still be popular now? A June 9-10 2020 YouGov poll still shows that only a tiny fraction of Americans want to cut police funding. When asked, “do you favor or oppose cutting funding for police departments?” The responses were favor 25%, oppose 53%. In other words, cuts are opposed by a majority of Americans. Only 24% of Americans agreed with the statement “[p]olice reform hasn’t worked. We need to defund police and reinvent our approach to public safety.” Only 33% of blacks agreed with that statement. The poll is a treasure trove of data on criminal justice: you should read it if you have time.

The Cato Institute has also done recent polling on this issue. You can read the details in their article, “Americans Don’t Want to #Defund the Police, Instead They Agree on Reform. The title says it all. They go on: “[i]t’s also useful to keep in mind that few Americans of any racial group support some of the more radical changes demanded by some activists. For instance, few people support calls to abolish or defund the police: 9 in 10 black, white and Hispanic Americans oppose reducing the number of police officers in their community—and a third say their community needs more officers…”

Camden, New Jersey Is Actually an Example of Funding the Police

Much has been written about Camden, New Jersey, a town that “defunded” it’s police department. “Defund” never means defund in these conversations. What Camden actually did was increase the number of police on the streets. They replaced the city police force with a county force. “The new county force is double the size of the old one.”

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders Want to Fund the Police

Joe Biden seems to agree. In an opinion piece in USA Today, he wrote, “I’m proposing an additional $300 million to reinvigorate community policing in our country. Every single police department should have the money it needs to institute real reforms like adopting a national use of force standard, buying body cameras and recruiting more diverse police officers.” More police officers is not defunding the police, obviously.

Bernie Sanders agrees. ““I think we want to redefine what police departments do, give them the support they need to make their jobs better defined,” said Sanders.  On June 2, he told Sen. Chuck Schumer that “we need to enhance the recruitment pool by ensuring that the resources are available to pay wages that will attract the top tier officers we need…”


We should remember that there is also a moral case for funded, effective police. Here’s a story from Reddit that illustrates this well.

Policing Is Not Racist

I agree with James Comey, who put it this way:

I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living—people who risk their lives because they want to help other people. They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.

(James Comey, Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race.)

Comey described the birth of the myth of racist policing as follows.  Many police officers work in places where a huge proportion of street crime is committed by people of color.  These officers learn from those experiences and begin to be more suspicious of people of color than similarly situated white people.  Comey, and others, have defended this behavior as “maybe even rational.”  For example, New York City is 25% black.  Yet blacks were the victims of 55% of the city’s murders and 61% of the suspects, according to the NYPD.  Others cite even more disturbing statistics.

I think this may be the birth of things like bias and racial profiling.  And certainly, there are racist cops, just like there are racists in every profession, although the power police wield makes it much more important to root out individual racist cops.  But calling all police racists, or calling police racist as an institution, is inaccurate.  It does nothing to help crime victims and certainly nothing to improve policing.

Black Cops Agree

Comey is white, but his view is not limited to white people. Bernard Parks, the first black police chief of Los Angeles, said that racial disparities resulted from the choices of criminals, not police bias. “It’s not the fault of the police when they stop minority males or put them in jail. It’s the fault of the minority males for committing the crime. In my mind it is not a great revelation that if officers are looking for criminal activity, they’re going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports.” Charles Ramsey became chief of police in Washington D.C. in 1998. He said, “not to say that [racial profiling] doesn’t happen, but it’s clearly not as serious or as widespread as the publicity suggests. I get so tired of hearing that ‘Driving While Black’ stuff. It’s just used to the point where it has no meaning. I drive while black – I’m black. I sleep while black too. It’s victimology.”

Many Disagree

Paul Butler, writing in the Guardian, says, “The US criminal legal process is all about keeping people – especially African American men – in their place.” This ignores the fact that “the lifetime risk of incarceration skyrocketed for African American male high school dropouts with the advent of mass incarceration, it actually decreased slightly for black men with some college education” according to James Forman Jr.’s book, Locking Up Our Own.  This suggests that policing is related to class, not race. Radley Balko, writing in the Washington Post, wrote an opinion with the headline, “There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist.”  He has a lot of links, and I’m looking forward to going through them.  Only a few paragraphs in, however, he changes the definition of racism to fit his argument.  To him, systemic racism means, “we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of people who work within them.”  That’s not what “racist” means to most people.

What is Systemic Racism

A dictionary is a repository of agreed-upon definitions of words.  It reflects the concepts that people understand when words are used.  You may use “up” to mean “down” and “hot” to mean “cold”.  You can create your own private definitions of words.  But when you use these words in public, especially in a newspaper article or other writing intended for public consumption, you cannot create your own private meaning.  If you say the sky is down and snow is hot, you are not being accurate, regardless of your private definitions.

We see this problem with the phrase “systemic racism.”  According to Wikipedia, the phrase was coined by activists in the 1960s, but it does not provide their definition.  Wikipedia’s first “definition” of systemic racism is taken from a British judge, and differs from Balko’s definition above and the dictionary definition below.  Then the article provides a second definition, “differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society.”  Later, the article has a third definition by Professor James M. Jones. It is remarkable that an encyclopedia article on systemic racism can’t even agree with itself about what the terms mean.

When no one can agree on a definition, we must ask ourselves what a reasonable person hearing the words “systemic racism” will understand them to mean.  Luckily, we have agreed-upon definitions of these words in the dictionary.

The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  A system is a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.  Systemic racism, therefore, is a set of things working together with prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that one race is superior.

Merriam Webster’s definition of racism is similar. Until June 10, 2020, when they changed it to support those who argue that systemic racism exists. The definition was explicitly changed to support this position. The change was requested by a 22-year-old college student who “noticed in discussions about racism that white people sometimes defended their arguments by cutting and pasting the definition from the dictionary.”

Someone wondering if there is systemic racism in policing may not know which of the definitions to go with. They may not know that some have changed the definition to support their political positions.  And how many people will hear the phrase “systemic racism” and even look it up in the first place?  Most people will simply apply the common meaning of each of those words to the concept.  When someone like Balko says there’s systemic racism in policing, most people will understand him to mean that police work with prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that their own race is superior.  After all, that is the definition of the words.  The problem is, that isn’t true.  Balko and others call the system racist, and when it turns out that the definition of “racist” is not met, they respond that they weren’t using that definition.  This bait and switch is dishonest.  Don’t forget that calling someone (or some system) racist is an extremely serious accusation.  Being a racist is one of the worst things a person can be in today’s society.  Supporting a racist system is even worse.  Yet some accuse people and the systems they work in of being racist all the time.  It shouldn’t be done, especially when the accuser is using a made-up definition of racism in the first place.

Authors Who Don’t Think the System is Racist

Rich Lowry, writing in National Review.  Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine. William Barr on Face the Nation.

The Nine Principles of Policing

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many people have proposed radical reforms of the police. One of the most radical things that we can do is to bear in mind the original purposes of police.

British police officers are called “Bobbies” after Robert Peel, who established the London Metropolitan Police.  Peel developed the idea of police officers as “citizens in uniform.”  Peel had 9 principles of policing issued to every new police officer from 1829 onward.  They are still on the government’s website. They are:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary, of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said, “I carry these with me everywhere. My bible.” The New York Times was moved to do an extensive article on Bratton and his love of Peel. Unfortunately, he is not immune from the present moment.


Bobbies” were called “Peelers” in Ireland.

Peele was good for more than just his nine principles. This Wikipedia article takes a deeper dive. Also check out the article on the man himself; his political career has some dark spots.

There Are No Racial Differences in Officer-Involved Shootings

Black Lives Matter is an advocacy group founded on the belief that black lives don’t matter to police officers. They have attracted world-wide attention in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Those of us working in the criminal justice system must listen to what Black Lives Matter is saying and try to figure out if they are right. The first question that the movement brings to my mind is, “do police kill more black people than others?” If they do, that’s strong evidence that black lives don’t matter to the police.

As everyone knows, “a primary obstacle to the study of police use of force has been the lack of readily available data.” (Roland G. Fryer, Jr., An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force (2017) [“Fryer”].) “A simple count of the number of police shootings that occur does little to explore whether racial differences in the frequency of officer-involved shootings are due to police malfeasance or differences in suspect behavior.” (Id.)

Professor Roland Fryer conducted a study of police use of force. His goal was to provide data to the argument that police are racially baised. He summarized his findings:

On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.

Fryer, at p. 1.

This conclusion was controversial. That’s why I think that we should look a little closer at the study.

What Are Professor Fryer’s Biases?

Fryer has written that he lived the life “of a Southern black boy who grew up without a mother and knows what it’s like to swallow the bitter pill of police brutality.” He describes the genesis of his paper. “In 2015, after watching Walter Scott get gunned down, on video, by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer, I set out on a mission to quantify racial differences in police use of force.”

Even Fryer’s paper almost explicitly declares its biases. It starts off with a summary of police violence against black people. Fryer summarizes the history of policing by claiming that, “[f]or much of the 20th century, law enforcement chose to brazenly enforce the status quo of overt discrimination, rather than protect and serve all citizens.” That’s an extremely broad statement that many would disagree with, and which has nothing to do with the economic analysis in the paper. Fryer also summarizes the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner but leaves out facts that tend to exculpate the officers. He ends the paper with the sentence “Black Dignity Matters.” (Fryer at p. 40.)

In the Wall Street Journal, Fryer wrote, “Are there racial differences in the most extreme forms of police violence? The Southern boy in me says yes; the economist says we don’t know.”

Police Are More Likely to Use Non-Lethal Force on Non-Whites

Fryer starts by analyzing less than lethal force. He notes that the use of force is extremely rare. For example, 0.26% of interactions between police and civilians involve an officer drawing any weapon. Only 0.02% rise to the level of baton use. The raw data shows that blacks and Hispanics are more than 50% more likely to have police use force. Fryer then accounts for 125 variables, including “baseline characteristics, encounter characteristics, civilian behavior, precinct and year fixed effects.” (Fryer at p. 3.) He finds that despite accounting for these variables, police still use force more often on non-whites. Even though there are racial differences in the use of non-lethal force, Fryer does not find that they are the result of racism. He simply says that they are unexplained racial disparities. “As economists, we don’t get to label unexplained racial disparities ‘racism.'” For good reason: these differences could be the result of many unmeasureable factors. To jump to racism is irresponsible without evidence.

There Are No Racial Differences in Officer-Involved Shootings

In stark contrast to non-lethal uses of force, we find that, conditional on a police interaction, there are no racial differences in officer-involved shootings on either the extensive or intensive margins.

Fryer, at p. 4.

In fact, controlling for variables, Fryer found “that blacks are 27.4 percent less likely to be shot at by police relative to non-black, non-Hispanics.” (Id. at p. 5.) He cautions that the relative variability “is measured with considerable error and not statistically significant.” (Id.) In other words, it’s hard to tell how much less likely blacks are to be shot, but it is possible to tell that they are less likely to be shot. He has other caveats as well; everyone should carefully read this paper. The most important, to my mind, is that some of the conclusions are based on police reports, which may be written in such a way as to minimize bad conduct.

Who is Roland G. Fryer, Jr.?

Roland G. Fryer is a professor in the Dept. of Economics at Harvard University, a member of the National Bureau of Economics Research, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. He was also “chief equality officer” for New York City’s Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fryer is black. I normally wouldn’t mention it, but I’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric lately directing white allies to listen to black people. When he was a young man, Roland worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru. He went on to become the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard. He is a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.


Fryer’s conclusions were controversial. Dean Knox, a Princeton professor, criticized them in two papers. They were criticized even more in the press. Here’s an example. The Guardian screws up statistics on police shootings and fails to even mention this paper in an article on the subject. The statistics and omissions are so bad you have to wonder what the editor was thinking. Moreover, at least two other studies, both published in 2016—by Phillip Atiba Goff et al. and Ted R. Miller et al.—have since found the same conclusions using different data.

Fryer wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on this subject. He believes policing is racist, I don’t. The Attorney General thinks there is no such thing as systemic racism. For what it’s worth.

Fryer was placed on administrative leave for two years, beginning in 2019, for sexual harassment. You can read about the substance of the allegations here.

How Police are Held Accountable

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, it’s important to understand the ways that police are held accountable. There are four overlapping ways that consequences follow bad police behavior.

Administrative Discipline

Administrative discipline is imposed when a police agency writes up an officer or other employee for violating policy.  This is similar to what might happen in any workplace.  Officers can also be administratively disciplined for using excessive force, violating a suspect or witness’s rights, dishonesty in any capacity, or failing to be polite and professional

Collateral Discipline

When a police officer is disciplined by an oversight body.  For example, the the Berkeley Police Department has a Police Review Commission. The PRC is an independent, civilian oversight agency to the BPD. The PRC advises city leaders and the BPD on police policies and investigates complaints by members of the public against police officers. This type of oversight is exists in large jurisdictions like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego as well.

One important form of collateral discipline is the DA blacklist – also called the Brady list. Whenever the DA’s office believes that an officer is untruthful, they have to disclose that information any time they want to use that person as a witness. They also have to disclose it if that witness’s untruthfulness is exculpatory. And dishonesty is not the only thing that prosecutors must disclose. They must also disclose fabrication of evidence and the use of excessive force. If you are a prosecutor and your arresting officer has been fabricating evidence, your case is dead. DA’s offices keep a list of such officers. Prosecutors cannot use them as witnesses. Putting a cop on this list means that they are useless out in the field. After all, any case they touch is dead. So police agencies must move them off the street and onto a desk. The list prevents officers from testifying. The policeman himself has no say in the matter. There is no appeal. The police agency has no say in the matter, nor do judges or legislators. It’s all up to the DA, who is an independently elected position. Take a moment to think about this. The DA can take a cop off the street, even though the cop works for another agency that may disagree.

Civil lawsuits

Police can be sued if they hurt a person in any way, including violating their constitutional rights even without injury. They have to prove that they were damages by a preponderance of the evidence – meaning it was more likely than not. They do not need a unanimous jury verdict, 9 out of 12 is enough. The point is that civil suits are much easier to win than criminal prosecutions. These require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And a unanimous jury is required for conviction.

If a person proves a case against a cop, they can get their actual damages: the money they actually spent on legal bills, lost during time off from work, and other measureable damages. They can also damages for emotional distress, which can’t be measured. And finally, the civil court can impose punitives damages on the police, which get paid to the individual. These amounts can be so high that they are effectively lottery tickets.

The law provides incentives lawsuits against the police for violating constitutional rights. For example, the law gives incentive for lawsuits regarding excessive force, overdetention, cruel and unusual punishment, and even wrongful death. The law empowers lawyers to act as private prosecutors. If they can prove a constitutional violation, the police agency must pay their attorneys fees. Even if the victim is already being awarded millions in the types of damages listed above. In fact, if the plaintiff only wins $1 in damages, the attorney must still be paid.

The practical result of all this money is that police are sued all the time for even the most minor complaints.  There is literally an army of plaintiff’s lawyers scouring every jail, booking record, and criminal courthouse for even a whiff of a meritorious lawsuit. And most plaintiff’s lawyer are not just independent, they are outright hostile to police.

The plaintiff’s lawyer hired by George Floyd’s family to sue the police

Since the pot of money is so large, the best plaintiff’s lawyers run sophisticated operations with multiple lawyers, investigators, paralegals, and other staff preparing the case. They have the subpoena power, and can compel testimony from police and other witnesses in the form of depositions. These examinations are taken under oath, with the penalty of perjury. They usually last much longer and go into more detail than witness testimony in criminal court.

Although I personally dislike these kind of lawyers, and must declare my bias, they provide me with a lot of confidence that the system is not racist. If it were, these guys would sniff it out and make a ton of money on it. When they succeed, and a cop is found liable, the other types of accountability follow. A righteous lawsuit will also mean administrative discipline, collateral discipline, and could mean criminal prosecution, if not for the underlying conduct, then for perjury during a deposition.

Criminal Prosecutions

Police are not above the law. They may be prosecuted in criminal court just like anybody else. They do not have any special privileges or defenses. They are prosecuted all the time for private offenses in their personal lives, such as domestic violence, battery, or fraud. It is less common for them to be prosecuted for their performance on the job.

Police and prosecutors often interact.  It can be tough to file on people that you work with.  Nevertheless, I’ve managed to do it several times, and it is common enough every DA will do it once or twice.  Many prosecutors offices also have a “Justice System Integrity Division” whose only job is to prosecute police.  They go anywhere in the county, and thus don’t interact with any one police agency on a daily basis.  Also, there is tremendous pressure on the DA’s office to be hard on cops, and no pressure to be soft on them.  Here’s an example

Finally, cops may also be prosecuted by the Attorney General’s office.  If they feel that a local DA has a conflict of interest, they are required to take the case and prosecute it themselves. The California Attorney General has a special unit for this purpose.