I struggled writing my essay this week. I wanted to talk about Breonna Taylor, but I had way too much to say. I want to talk about how if you took Breonna Taylor’s death, the investigation and the ruling, and the reaction from Congress out of the context we are all living through right now, we could see that there is not much reason for the protests that are occurring right now. But before I get there, I must start here.
According to Black Lives Matter, there is an unacceptable amount of police brutality and the killing of unarmed black civilians in this country. There is one word in that sentence that can be removed to make the sentence truer, and more importantly, in line with more peoples’ subjective reality. So, let us change it to: “there is an unacceptable amount of police brutality and killing of unarmed [removed word] civilians in this country”. The idea that this is exclusively happening to black men is not actually proven by the data and is quite debatable. (In the table below, all data is for the year 2018. It is the most recent year for which all data was available. This analysis is very simple, and more complexity could be added by looking at multiple years, but the findings would be very similar)
There are more white men killed by police every year than black men (White: 456 or 46.06% of all police killings, Black: 229 or 23.13%). That may be a surprising statistic to some of you. The media certainly pushes a strong narrative that this is a burden carried by black men exclusively, but that is not true. Those are just numbers, though, and they need to be scaled to something. The common scale is to US population of which, Black people surmise 13.39% and White people make up 76.51%. Using that as a scale, it seems absurd that Black men are accounting for 23.13% of killings by police. However, if we continue to use this as a scale… women make up 50.75% of the population and only 52 were killed by police or 5.25%. What is going on there? Are police prejudice towards men, and is it affecting the rate at which they kill women? Perhaps, but um… no. No, this is not what is happening. What is happening can be explained by your intuition: women are much less likely to have a contentious interaction with police because women are much less likely to be involved in criminal activity. We need another figure to scale the police killing numbers to instead of overall population. A figure that better represents the likelihood of having a contentious interaction with police.
One figure that could be more relevant to the analysis is prison population. It isn’t perfect because prison only represents the people who were convicted and cannot represent all police interactions. Unfortunately, the only data I could find on police interactions was a survey of a representative sample. Prison population data, to me, seems much more concrete (however, I welcome a more refined analysis). Furthermore, we can parse prison population data into types of convictions. If we only look at the prison population serving time for a violent offense, I think that gives us good figure to scale our police killing data to. In the US, there are 191,800 white men incarcerated for violent offenses (or 26.55% of the total prison population incarcerated for violent offenses) and there are 256,300 black men (or 35.47%). The trend has reversed! Now it seems like white men are killed at a higher rate than black men. I don’t think this analysis proves that, and frankly I don’t believe that. However, this analysis is better than scaling against national population, if only marginally, and proves that there is reason to question the narrative of police killing black men disproportionately to white men. Let me clear: not a reason to reject the narrative, but a reason to question.
Why, though, are we even wasting time with this analysis? Why try to prove racism when this is a problem that needs to be fixed regardless of why it is happening? Breonna Taylor’s death was a tragic failure of our criminal justice system regardless of the color of her skin, and I would guess that a vast majority of people in this country would agree to that. You are going to have a much harder time convincing people that Breonna Taylor was killed by police because she was black. If you are trying to move a democratic republic of 330 million people forward, you better make sure that your message has mass appeal otherwise you are doing a disservice to your cause.
P.S. In my analysis I included all police killings and did not restrict it to unarmed victims. There are police killings that can be justified (e.g. if an officer’s life is in danger and they have no other recourse) and so the focus should be on the police killings that could have been prevented, and unarmed victims represent a very definitive population of police killings that should have been prevented. However, in 2018, only 58 unarmed people were killed by police. That number is too high, but in terms of statistical analysis, it is almost too small to use. To put that in context, over 120 people were struck by lightning in the same year, so an American was twice as likely to be struck by lightning as they were to be killed by police while unarmed. They were also much more likely to win the lottery.
P.P.S. This essay is not an attempt to say that racism does not exist, or that it is never worth it to try convince people that a problem in this country is being caused by racism. However, racism is a thought or an ideology. That makes it difficult to accuse another of and even more difficult to prove on a large scale. The types of police reform being proposed help everybody (body cams, eliminating chokeholds and no-knock warrants, ending qualified immunity), and I wish that was the messaging. It turns it from a 50/50 issue to a 75/25 issue (in terms of those for and against).
P.P.P.S. I am not going to say this that often, but god bless the Washington Post for taking great initiative and keeping the database on police killings. That is EXACTLY the kind of thing our media should be doing on a regular goddamn basis.
P.P.P.P.S. I was originally going to include Asians in this analysis, but the prison data was not ideal. They were lumped into an “Other” category that included everything not White, Black, or Hispanic.
P.P.P.P.P.S. Today is my birthday, and when this is published, I will be enjoying a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant with my lovely girlfriend, Maria.
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