Saturday, 9 July 2016

Does racial animus explain killings of black civilians by US police?

This post examines the distribution of victims of police shootings by race, and by sex. Data on individuals killed by police were taken from the Washington Post database for 2015 and 2016. According to these data, over the last two years, 27% of those killed by police were black, and 39% of those killed by police while unarmed were black. Insofar as blacks represent only 13% of the US population, this implies that blacks are overrepresented among the victims of police shootings.

However, blacks are––for whatever reason––also overrepresented among the perpetrators of violent crime. It is possible that blacks are more likely to be killed by police because they are more likely to get into violent confrontations with police, or because police officers practice statistical discrimination. The chart below shows, from left to right, the racial distribution of: the US population (taken from the US Census Bureau); those killed by police; those killed by police while unarmed; murder offenders (taken from the FBI); and alleged police killers (taken from the FBI––averaging over the last five years of available data was done to obviate sampling error). 


Blacks represent 13% of the US population, 27% of those killed by police, 39% of those killed by police while unarmed, 53% of murder offenders, and 39% of alleged police killers. These figures suggest that blacks may not be overrepresented among the victims of police shootings once involvement in murder or police killings is adjusted for. By way of comparison, consider the corresponding distributions by sex, which are shown in the chart below. Men are much more likely to be killed by police than women. But they are about as likely to be killed by police as one would expect on the basis of their involvement in murder or police killings. 


Given the highly sensitive nature of the subject matter, some caveats are in order. First, I am not arguing that blacks deserve to be killed more by police than members of other races. Rather, I am simply pointing out that the overrepresentation of blacks among the victims of police shootings may not be primarily attributable to racial animus on the parts of police officers. Second, I am not denying that there are cases of racially motivated violence against blacks by police officers. Such cases are of course deplorable. Third, I am not denying that there is a problem with police violence in the United States. The rate of police shootings in the US seems disproportionate even to the US's comparatively high homicide rate.

Finally, I am happy to send the dataset I have assembled to anyone who wants it. 

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