What the Black Lives Matter movement misses about those police shootings.
By Heather Mac Donald
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.
Publisher’s Note: Although this is an article from 2016, the information is important because it gives a clearer picture of about some of the shootings.
It is also important to keep in mind that being unarmed in no way means not dangerous.