An article of faith among those protesting Michael Brown’s death and among much of the media writing about the protests in Ferguson is that young African-American men are far more likely to be shot by police than young white men.
Much of the national media – The New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Daily Kos, Daily Beast and Vox among others – have quoted an October ProPublica study of FBI data showing that black males 15-19 years old were 21 times more likely than white males that age to be killed by police between 2010 and 2012.
What hasn’t gotten attention is that leading criminologists criticize the ProPublica findings as exaggerated. It’s true that black youths are killed more often than white youths, the critics agree, but the disparity over the past 15 years is much lower than over the three years featured by ProPublica. The longer period is more statistically accurate, they add.
David Klinger, a former police officer and a criminology professor at the University of Missorui-St. Louis, doesn’t mince words: “The ProPublica thing needs to be shut down. They cherry picked the three years that had the worst disparity instead of being honest about the whole picture.”
Klinger says the first thing he told ProPublica when the reporters contacted him was that they should not attempt the data analysis because the figures were so unreliable. “The ProPublica analysis is absolute garbage because it is based on the FBI’s supplemental homicide reports. I told them, don’t do it because the stats are horseshit.”
When ProPublica went ahead and then quoted Klinger, the criminologist demanded that the news organization remove his name from the story, but it refused.
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and now criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice calls the ProPublica study “substantially wrong.” In his Cop in the Hood blog, Moskos says that the 21:1 ratio is the result of the way ProPublic parsed the data – analyzing three years instead of 15, eliminating Hispanic youths from the category of whites and focusing on young victims rather than all victims.
Looking at the bigger picture of 15 years, Moskos found that black youths were nine times more likely than white youths to be killed by officers. Including Hispanics among whites cut the ratio to 5.5:1. Including victims of all ages reduced the ratio to 4:1. One reason that the three-year period cited by ProPublica gave such a high ratio is that only one non-Hispanic white was killed in 2010, skewing the figures.
If police are more likely to kill blacks than whites, does it matter if the ratio is 21:1, 9:1 or 4:1?
Here’s what Moskos says. “You may wonder why I’m quibbling. What’s my point? Well, it’s important to base opinions and public policy on fact. And for starters, 4 to 1 versus 21 to 1 is a huge difference.”
Moskos also argues blacks are more likely to be shot by police because they are in places where police engage violent criminals.
“In the population examined by ProPublica — the same subset in which blacks are 9 times (not 21 times) as likely as whites to be killed by police — the black-to-white homicide ratio is 15:1,” he wrote. “We know police-involved homicides correlate with homicide and violence in the community they police. So what rate of disparity would one expect in police-involved homicides? Certainly not 1 to 1.”
A blue and black problem?
Ryan Gabrielson, one of the ProPublica reporters, denies focusing on the worst years. “We weren’t cherry picking years,” he said in an interview. “We looked at all of the years. But we were looking at what is happening in the most recent years….The disparity is growing.”
Gabrielson agrees that “there is some relationship” between the high black homicide rate and the higher proportion of black youths killed by police. But he said there wasn’t enough information to tease out causality.
Gabrielson also defended separating Hispanics from whites. “I’m from Arizona,” he said. “I think you have to separate Hispanics and whites.”
One interesting finding of the ProPublica study is that black police officers also kill blacks at a higher rate than white suspects. About 78 percent of the civilian victims of black officers are black. “I don’t know if it is black and white problem or more a blue and black problem,” he said.
St. Louis – Race vs. dangerous neighborhood
Klinger and fellow researchers examined all 230 police shootings in the City of St. Louis in the ten years from 2003-12. In half the cases, police missed when they fired at suspects. In 37 cases, police killed the civilian – 30 of them African-Americans. That means that 81 percent of those killed in police shootings were black in a city that is 50 percent black.
Klinger obtained the kind of detailed data that often is lacking in other studies. From the police department case files, he obtained descriptive information about each incident – date, time, location, number of officers and suspects present and number of shots fired. He also obtained information about the officers – sex, race, age, years in service and weapon type. And he got descriptive information about the suspects such as demographic characteristics, weapons possessed, the number of shots officers fired at them, and the degree of injury.
The researchers then assigned the shootings to the census blocks where they occurred to see how the number of shootings related to factors such as the race, poverty and the level of gun violence in the census block.
Klinger, in an academic paper under review, found that the single factor that correlated most closely to the police shootings was the level of firearms violence in the area where the shooting occurred. This factor was more important than race or the poverty of the area, although the areas where firearms violence was the highest were also heavily black neighborhoods.
Pushing buttons, firing lasers
Marcia McCormick, a criminal law professor at Saint Louis University, thinks race is a key factor in police shootings of blacks. There is extensive social science research showing that whites are more likely to use force on blacks than on whites, she adds.
“There are numerous studies that have shown in lab settings that people interpret the same conduct…differently when engaged in by black people than by white people,” she said. “Because so many small decisions lead up to the eventual decision to use deadly force, it seems likely that the aggregate of the effects of giving members of one race more leeway or interpreting their actions more generously would lead to less use of deadly force in that group.”
McCormick cites the work of Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford.
For her experiments, Eberhardt divides white graduate students into three groups, all of which see momentary flashes of light on a screen. The flashes are so fast that they cannot be processed rationally but rather subliminally prime the students. One group is primed with black faces, one white faces and the third with no faces.
Then all of the students are shown objects in a visually degraded form that gradually comes into focus. Some of the objects are dangerous, such as guns and knives. Eberhardt finds that white students primed by having been shown black faces take far less time to recognize the dangerous objects than the students primed by white faces.
Translated into the real world, this could mean that white officers are more likely to see a threat when they see a black suspect than a white one.
Klinger says these button-pushing studies do not recreate the real world of cops confronting suspects. The button-pushing visuals are two-dimensional, not three. Also pushing buttons isn’t like pulling a trigger, he says.
So Klinger and fellow researchers created three-dimensional, full-size, high definition video to show subjects realistic scenarios where officers confront suspects on the street. The research subjects had real guns that had been modified to fire laser pulses.
The study found that the subjects were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving blacks but took longer to pull the trigger when faced by an armed black suspect than an armed white or Hispanic suspect. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology this year.
“What we found,” said Klinger, “was that research subjects, including police officers, are slower to shoot threatening black actors than white or Hispanic actors.”
One other study of police shootings that has gotten media attention in St. Louis and an important international forum is the Malcolm X Grassroots movement study that found 313 “extrajudicial killings” in 2012, or one every 28 hours.
The Malcolm X study is not of the same caliber as the careful ProPublica data analysis. It was conducted by an advocacy group that maintains the extent of black killings by police is hidden by the U.S. government and “the corporate media…permeated with white supremacist and capitalist assumptions.”
But the study got attention as part of the written brief that Saint Louis law professor Justin Hansford presented last month to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. This month, the committee expressed its concern about U.S. police tactics and the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.
Hansford’s brief to the UN committee cited the Malcolm X study to show that police shootings of black suspects are widespread. The brief said, “Among many community groups across the U.S. that have noted a pattern of law enforcement killing unarmed black persons, (the) community-based group the Malcolm X Grassroots Project found that there were 313 black people killed by the police, security guards or vigilantes in 2012 alone—or one person every 28 hours. Nearly half of those individuals were unarmed. The report notes that these numbers likely fall short of reality, due to the dearth of nation-wide statistics. The killing of Mike Brown and the abandonment of his body in the middle of a neighborhood street is but an example of the utter lack of regard for, and indeed dehumanization of, black lives by law enforcement personnel.”
But a case-by-case review of the Malcolm X study shows that only 134 of the 313 blacks killed were unarmed. Of those 134, 55 were driving cars at a police officer when shot or were fleeing at high speeds – both situations in which police are authorized to use deadly force. Another 23 suspects were shot by security guards or private citizens, not police. About 20 died after police used a taser rather than deadly force. That leaves 35 cases where police killed unarmed suspects; many of these resulted in prosecutions.
Hansford did not respond to an email request for a comment.
A more detailed version of this story was published by St. Louis Public Radio.