Police Killings, Gender and Race
Police killings of unarmed Black men have garnered a lot of attention lately. Black men are killed by police in numbers disproportionate to their share of the population. I want to put some numbers on that issue later in the post, and those numbers run counter to conventional wisdom. But first I want to warm up on something less controversial, though it is even more disproportionate, namely killings of police by gender. Still, context is in order. So here’s a little table I assembled with data from a number of sources (citations at the bottom of this post):
Figure 1 – Male v. Female
What we see here is that women are disproportionately less likely to be killed by police relative to their share of the population. Women also make a disproportionately small share of police personnel, and female police officers are far less likely to be killed in the line of duty than a male police officer. (I.e., women are 12.2% of the total force, but 4.2% of total police officers killed.) Women are an even lower share of cop killers; only 3.2% of people who kill police officers are women.
To put these deaths in perspective vis a vis the wider population, under 10% of all murders were committed by women, but women make up over 29% of murder victims.
So… women are far less likely to be killers than men are, and even less likely to be cop killers. On the other hand, they are less likely to be police personnel, and among police personnel, they are far less likely to be killed than their male counterparts. Or, to put it a different way, men are are disproportionately likely to be killed by police and to be police. Among police, men are disproportionately likely to be killed. Men are also far more likely to be murderers, murder victims, and cop killers than women are. One piece of interesting information that isn’t in this table because I haven’t found it: what percentage of killings by police are committed by male v. female personnel. One can, of course, hazard a guess.
One last point before we move to the real meat and potatoes of this post: the fact that 96% of the people killed by police are men is not evidence of discrimination against men. After all, about the same percentage of cop killers are men. If 96% of cop killers were men, but men were 50% of those killed by cops, we wouldn’t be praising cops for their even handedness in dealing with men. Why? Well, when dealing with a potentially dangerous civilian, police face a trade-off between risk to themselves and risk to the civilian. (At the extreme, all risk to the civilian is eliminated if that civilian kills the cop, and at the other extreme, all risk to the cop is eliminated if the cop kills the civilian.)
So if 96% of cop killers were men, but men made up 50% of those killed by cops, we’d conclude that a) cops were jeopardizing their own safety by letting men get away with too much threatening behavior, b) cops were way too-hair triggered around women, or c) both. <bold>In other words, on average, if X% of the threat of lethal force against police comes from Group A, we expect to see X% of the use of lethal force by police to fall on Group A.</bold> Remember that relationship – we will be using it again.
Moving along (we’ve got a lot to cover, no time to dawdle), using the same sources I came up with the following two tables. That’s two tables, because the different sources aren’t consistent with their use of Hispanic or Latino people. In some cases, Hispanic and Latino people are folded into Black, White, and other groups, and in some cases they are broken out separately. So the two tables immediately below are as clean (from the sources) as I could make them:
Figure 2 – Racial, First Tables
The first of these two Race-based tables above certainly looks damning. Black people are disproportionately likely to be killed by police. Additionally, White people are more likely to be police than their share of the population would indicate. Conversely, Hispanic people are disproportionately less likely to become police personnel. So far, the story fits the conventional narrative: Racist white cops are excessively prone to killing Black people.
The second table shows that though Black people are disproportionately likely to be killed by cops, they are even more disproportionately represented among those who kill cops, and by quite a bit. One can chicken and egg this a number of different ways, but the wave function collapses when we note that relative to their share of the population, Black people are overly represented among murder victims, and even more so among those who commit murder. I have heard heroic attempts to blame the high murder rate in some areas on excessive policing, but they sound pretty ludicrous.
It is also worth noting that Black police personnel are less likely to be killed than other police, on average, and White police personnel are disproportionately more likely to be killed. Again, data on which police officers kill while on the job is not available, or if it is, I haven’t found it.
While the two tables above are interesting, it might make sense to merge the two. I tried doing it a number of different ways – ideally one could keep Hispanic or Latino as its own separate classification for granularity purposes but I just couldn’t make it work. My best attempt is below. In it, I assigned Hispanic or Latino numbers to Black, White, and Other groups based on their proportion of the general population.
Figure 3 – Final Table, Black & White
I’ve color coded numbers: red means a higher percentage than a group’s share of the population, and blue means a lower a lower percentage than a group’s share of the population. Whites are over-represented among Police personnel, and among Police, Whites are the most likely to be killed even accounting for their share of the police force. They are under-represented on other categories. Black people are a quarter of all people killed by police, and 40% of those who kill police. Additionally, Black people are about 44% of those murdered in the country, and 47% of the murderers.
Now, let’s move to where I point out something in the data that is going to piss people off, and this is it: From what I can tell, the data implies that Police are less, not more likely to kill Black people given the same behavior and/or perceived threat. Here’s why. As noted above, we expect that if police are rational, they will react to perceived threats upon their own lives. If one group contains individuals who are more of a threat to police (and other civilians) than other groups, then that group will be met with lethal force by police more frequently. If a group is less of a threat to police (and other civilians), police will be less likely to use lethal force on that group. In the end, use of lethal force by the police against any given group will approximate the threat posed by that group.
Back to the table. Black people are 13% of the population, 40% of those who kill police, and 26% of those killed by cops. Focus on those last two percentages. 40% of cop killers are black, and 26% of people killed by cops are Black. This means that on average, <ital>the do not react as strictly to threats from Black people as they do to the same threat posed by people who are not Black.</ital> Conversely, White people (77% of the population) are 55% of those who kill police and 65% of those killed by police. Here, on average, police are more likely to meet threatening behavior with lethal force than the threat posed. Similarly, Asians and Native combined (10% of the population) are 3% of those who kill police, and 6% of those who are killed by police. They too are more likely to be met with lethal force by the police than the level threat they impose on police would imply.
In other words, contrary to popular perception, the data seems to show that Black people are less likely to be met with lethal force than non-Black people would be for behavior that genuinely constitutes a threat toward police personnel. At the same time, police are, on average, harsher toward Black people than toward non-Black people because the police are more likely expect a threat from Black people than from non-Black people. (Again, due to the high murder rate in general, and high rate of killing police.) Put plainly: Black people are subject to more low-level police attention (i.e., traffic stops, searches), but less high-level police attention (i.e., actions that reduce violent crime).
These two competing tendencies create winners and losers. The biggest losers are probably non-criminal Black people. Non-criminal Black people pay twice: on the one hand, they suffer the indignity of extra police scrutiny relative to non-Blacks. On the other hand, the most violent members of the Black community are, on average, more likely to be allowed to go about their business unimpeded than the most violent members of the White, Asian, and Native American communities.
How to solve this problem – well, that’s a post for another day, perhaps. But I did want to add one more thing that I see in the data. The current debate going on in society has generated a few recommendations, one of which is that there will be fewer killings of Black men by police if police departments more closely resemble their constituents. In other words, a predominantly Black community should have a predominantly Black police force. Now, the table above indicates that Black people are 13.3% of the total population, but 12.3% of the police force. That means that there may be jurisdictions with large disparities, but overall, nationally, there isn’t a large disparity (and my guess is that its shrinking.)
A slightly larger disparity is the race of the police officers who are killed in the line of duty. While Black people are 12.3% of total police, they are less than 11% of total police officers killed. A positive interpretation is that Black police officers have more understanding of Black civilians and therefore are better at diffusing situations that would otherwise lead to violence. In that case, more Black police officers will reduce total deaths. A negative interpretation is that Black police officers are more likely to escalate to fatal actions than non-Black police officers, getting the drop on potential threats (and perhaps non-threats). A third option is that Black people simply have different jobs than non-Blacks in the police force.
There is a lot the data doesn’t show. There’s too much information that just isn’t being collected. But that’s no excuse for misinterpreting the data we already have available. Ignoring what the data tells us is not only stupid, it is a guarantee that the problem will continue to be framed incorrectly, which in turn means it will not be solved. That gets people killed.
Dep’t of Justice on race & sex of Police Personnel – see tables 4 and 5
Dep’t of Justice on law enforcement personnel killed, by race & gender
Dep’t of Justice on tace & gender information on those who killed law enforcement personnel
Dep’t of Justice on murder info, by offender and victim race & gender
Census, general population demographics
Census, percentage of Hispanics who identify as Black
Washington Post study on people killed by police