There Is No Epidemic of Police Brutality against Black Men

Since President Trump decided to criticize NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, we have lost sight of why exactly these players are protesting. In the op-ed he wrote in the New York Times to explain why he and Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the anthem, Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers said that players are protesting against police brutality against black Americans and wrote about “the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police.” Reid is hardly the only one to make those sort of claims, his op-ed largely rehashes the dominant narrative on the prevalence of police brutality against black men in the US, which is largely undisputed in the media.

According to this narrative, black men are constantly harassed by the police and routinely brutalized, even when they have done nothing wrong. We constantly hear about the “epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men” and even high-profile black celebrities often claim to be afraid of the police because they fear the same thing might happen to them. Police brutality or at least the possibility that one might become a victim of such violence is supposed to be part of the experience of a typical black man in the US. Events such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson are presented as proof that black men are never safe from the police.

The problem is that, except for the fact that police brutality exists and seems to disproportionately affect black men, this narrative is completely false. In reality, far from being typical of the black experience in the US, black men are overwhelmingly unlikely to be the victims of police brutality. The dominant narrative about the prevalence of police brutality against black men is essentially a fantasy, which bears no connection to reality whatsoever. The fact that it’s uncritically accepted by the media poisons the relations between law enforcement and black communities throughout the country, results in violent protests that cause the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property and sometimes even claims lives and, perhaps even more importantly, distracts from far more serious problems that black Americans face.

For instance, using the database compiled by the Washington Post and data from the National Weather Service, I estimated that an unarmed black man was more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by the police. Of course, unlike when someone is struck by lightning, police killings are not the result of a force of nature and I’m not claiming they are morally equivalent. But they are so incredibly rare that it’s completely misleading to talk about the “epidemic” of police shootings of unarmed black men. You don’t hear people talk about the epidemic of lightning strikes and claim they are afraid to go out because they fear it might happen to them. Liberals often make the same comparison when they argue that, given how unlikely it is, it’s completely irrational to fear that you might become a victim of terrorism. If this is true about terrorism, then it must be true about the police shootings of unarmed black men, they can’t have it both ways.

One might retort that, while it may be incredibly rare for a black man to be killed by the police, black men are still constantly stopped and routinely brutalized by the police, even if they don’t die from it. However, even this weaker claim is false, as I will now argue. Indeed, according to the best data we have on police violence, even non-lethal forms of police brutality are extremely rare. Of course, it’s not as rare as being struck by lightning, but it’s still rare enough to make the amount of attention this issue gets and the hyperbolic statements it prompts completely irrational. It just isn’t true that black men are kicked, punched, etc. on a regular basis by the police.

In order to show that, I’m going to use the data from the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), which provides detailed information about contacts between police and the public. It’s conducted on a regular basis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and is based on a nationally representative sample of US residents age 16 or older of more than 70,000 people. Respondents are asked whether they had a contact with the police during the past 12 months and, if they did, have to answer a battery of questions about the nature of their interaction with the police during the last contact. In particular, they are asked questions about whether the police used or threatened to use force during that contact and, if so, what the police did or threatened to do exactly. Since the respondents are also asked questions about their age, race, gender, etc., we can use it to calculate the prevalence of police violence for various demographic groups. Moreover, since it’s entirely based on what respondents say and doesn’t rely on police reports, it eliminates the possibility of bias from law enforcement agencies.

I recently used the data from the PPCS to calculate the prevalence of various types of police violence against white, black, and hispanic males. (I won’t go into the details, so if you want to see the full analysis, I encourage you to read the post I wrote about this.) What came out of this analysis is that men of any race, including black men, are overwhelmingly unlikely to experience any use of force at the hands of the police. First, despite what the narrative claims, it’s not true that black men are constantly stopped by the police for no reason. A black man has on average only 0.32 contacts with the police in any given year. This is actually less than a white man, who on average has 0.35 contacts every year. Indeed, black men are less likely than white men to have any contact with the police in any given year, since 20.7% of white men but only 17.5% of black men have at least one contact with the police per year. It’s true that black men are overrepresented among people who have many contacts with the police, but not by a lot. Only 1.5% of black men have more than three contacts with the police in any given year, whereas 1.2% of white men do.

Protestor.jpg
A protestor in Oakland, CA

If we look at how often the police uses force against men of different races, we find that black men are indeed more likely to experience the use of force by the police, but that even they are still incredibly unlikely to do so. Only 0.6% of black men experience physical force by the police in any given year, while approximately 0.2% of white men do. But physical force as defined by the PPCS includes relatively mild forms of violence such as pushing and grabbing. If we focus on men who have been injured by the police, we find that only 0.08% of black men are injured by the police, approximately the same rate as for white men. (However, as I explain in my detailed analysis, being injured by the police is so rare that measurement and sampling error make the estimates very imprecise, so it’s quite possible that in fact black men are significantly more likely than white men to be injured by the police. But there is no doubt that it’s extremely rare, which is precisely why measurement and sampling error is a problem.) To give you a sense of how small that is, it means that a black man is approximately 44 times more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to be injured by the police, according to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Moreover, keep in mind that a lot of police violence is probably justified, so the probability that a black man will experience unjustified police violence is presumably even lower.

Now, it’s true that, except for contacts in which the respondent was injured (but again it may just be a result of measurement and sampling error due to the fact that it’s so rare), we observe significant differences in the rates at which men of different races experience police violence. However, although people often equate racial disparities with bias, this inference is fallacious because, for whatever reasons (which may well have something to do with bias outside of the criminal justice system), there are large behavioral differences between racial groups that would produce disparities in the rates at which they experience police violence even in the absence of bias in the criminal justice system. For instance, the data from the PPCS also show that men are vastly more likely to experience police violence than women, but while bias may explain part of this disparity, nobody doubts that most of it has to do with the fact that men are on average far more violent than women. Similarly, we can show that black men commit violent crimes at much higher rates than white men, which probably has a lot to do with the disparity in the use of force by the police.

This can be shown by using the National Crime Victimization Survey, which is another survey conducted by the BJS every year to assess the reality of victimization rates among US residents, without having to rely on police data that could be biased. The latest data currently available are from 2015, when the BJS reached more than 189,000 people for the NCVS. (Again, for the full analysis, see the detailed post.) Interviewers ask respondents if they have been the victim of a crime in the past 12 months and, if they have, they ask them a lot of questions about the nature of the incidents. In particular, for violent crimes, they ask them about the race or ethnicity of their offenders. This makes it possible to get a pretty accurate picture of differences between the rates at which people of different races commit those kind of crimes. Any difference that we observe cannot be ascribed to bias in the criminal justice system, since the data come directly from the victims.

According to the NCVS, in 2015, black men were three times more likely to commit violent crimes than white men. To the extent that cops are more likely to use force against people who commit violent crimes, which they surely are, this could easily explain most if not all of the disparities we have observed above in the rates at which the police uses force against people of different races. Again, that’s not to say that bias plays no role, which I’m sure it does. But it’s unlikely to explain a very large part of the discrepancy. Similarly, as I have argued elsewhere using recent meta-analyses of studies about bias in the criminal justice system, discrimination probably explains only a small part of the black/white disparity in incarceration rates, which is mostly the result of the fact that black people offend at much higher rates than white people.

I know people will say that, as a white man (who to make things worse is a foreigner and didn’t grow up in the US), I should just shut up and defer to what black Americans have to say about this, because they’re supposed to have some kind of privileged epistemic access to facts about police violence and how it affects them. It’s really one of the most disconcerting facts about the contemporary intellectual landscape that such patently obscurantist nonsense has become so popular on the left. The issue of how prevalent police violence against black people is cannot be settled by listening to what black people have to say about this. We can only figure this out by looking at systematic evidence, such as victimization surveys, which is what I have done in this article. By doing that, I am listening to what black people have to say about police violence, but I’m doing so in a scientifically responsible way. There is no doubt that, as various polls have demonstrated, black people are much more likely than white people to think that police violence against minorities is very common. But we can’t infer that, just because they’re black, they are more likely to be correct.

Minorities don’t have a magical radar in their head that allows them to know how common police violence is across the country or even in their neighborhood. Since they have direct knowledge of what happened to them personally, you can trust them about that. But not when it comes to larger social phenomena, for their beliefs about that are influenced by far more than just their personal experience, such as the media which constantly hypes police violence against black people. The fact is that, if you ask them about how often the police uses force against, not them personally but black people in general, many of them (though by no means all of them) will tell you that it happens all the time. But as we have seen, if you draw a representative sample of the population and ask each black person in that sample how often the police has used force against them personally, then use their answers to determine how common police violence against black people is, you find that it’s extremely rare. Black Americans are just wrong about how common police violence against minorities is, not in spite of the fact that they’re black, but probably because they are. Sometimes being more directly concerned by a phenomenon makes you less, not more, likely to be right about it.

Note that, on many issues, liberals have no problem recognizing that fact. For instance, there is a cottage industry of articles deploring the fact that, although crime has fallen spectacularly in the US since the 1990’s, most Americans mistakenly believe it has increased. Liberals are absolutely right to point out this misperception of the evolution of crime in the US, but if people of any color can be wrong about this, there is no reason to think black people can’t be wrong about the prevalence of police violence against minorities. In fact, as we have seen, they clearly are. It’s also not the only example of this phenomenon. For instance, a recently published study based on a representative sample of US adults showed that approximately 68% of black people never or rarely experienced discrimination, while about 26.5% sometimes did and only 5.5% declared experiencing discrimination often. Yet I have no doubt that, if you asked black people how common discrimination against people in their group is, a much larger proportion of them would say that it’s very common. They just think it happens to other black people. The fact is that people of every color are often victims of misperception on politically sensitive issues. Liberals have no difficulty, on the contrary, accepting that fact when it comes to white people, yet they often talk as if black Americans were somehow immune to this phenomenon. But they are not.

Philippe Lemoine

Philippe Lemoine is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Cornell University, where he specializes in logic and philosophy of science. He can also be found on Twitter at @phl43 and you can read more from him on his blog, www.necpluribusimpar.net
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Philippe Lemoine

Philippe Lemoine is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Cornell University, where he specializes in logic and philosophy of science. He can also be found on Twitter at @phl43 and you can read more from him on his blog, www.necpluribusimpar.net

7 thoughts on “There Is No Epidemic of Police Brutality against Black Men

  1. Ben Fischer writes; “Perhaps we should be using a term other than “epidemic,” but it is really hard to deny that racial disparities exist when it comes to police brutality and killings.”

    Is it really hard to deny? Given the fact that black men commit violent crime at a rate 300% higher than white men, you’re not willing to admit that this could at least be a partial explanation of these so-called disparities?

    Rather than complaining about police violence, maybe it’s time you became honest with yourself, and started complaining about black violence.

  2. Perhaps we should be using a term other than “epidemic,” but it is really hard to deny that racial disparities exist when it comes to police brutality and killings. I think that we Leftists have been primed to believe that it happens quite often because the 24/7 news cycle and social media are inundating us with horrific stories of black men being hurt or killed by police. It’s hard not to feel distraught about the situation and called to action.

    I absolutely believe that it is a problem to be addressed and that police departments across the country need to change the way they interface with communities of color. But I do sometimes wonder if there are reasons in addition to racial profiling/discrimination to explain the disparities. Surely, poverty and mental illness (particularly PTSD) are additional lenses to be examined.

    The Guardian was keeping track of police killings in its project “The Counted”: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database#

    There’s also an interesting book by James Forman called “Locking Up Our Own” in which he talks about support from African-American leaders for the “war on crime” and why these leaders thought that “tough-on-crime” measures were necessary to maintain the gains of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. I haven’t read it yet, but I definitely want to read it alongside Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”

    I have to be honest…I find this piece to be quite insensitive towards the experiences of black Americans. I agree that maybe the popular discourse around the issue lacks nuance and might even be detracting from progress on police accountability. But this should still be approached in a manner that is sensitive to the feelings of black Americans on this issue.

  3. Using the word “epidemic” misdirects readers. An epidemic is not necessarily disproportionate in its impact, and there need not be an epidemic for a problem to exist. The disproportionality of prison data is stunning. It most likely has multiple causes, interactions with police being just one. Subsequent interactions with the justice system provide multiple opportunities for injustices. We do have a problem, a serious one.

  4. I would like to hear Philippe’s reply to partisans of the “Mapping Police Violence” website, which claims that police killed at least 309 black people in 2016. The number seems like a stretch (the data includes, for example, deaths from car chases after a violent crime was committed) but I have heard and seen many BLM activists using it recently.

    One other thought, to address Joel and KD: you are correct that blacks are ~2.5 times more likely to experience police force. Isn’t it disingenuous though to claim that .6 percent of black men experiencing force is an epidemic of police violence? I think Phillipe’s point is that, while there is an inequality in who experiences police force, such experiences are still incredibly rare overall, which is not the picture you would get from listening to BLM activists or, really, any average progressive/liberal these days. There is both implicit and explicit acceptance for the idea that all black people are under siege in their daily life but the data doesn’t really seem to back it up.

  5. 1/15 black men are in prison, 1/106 white men, also an issue. Your statistics don’t talk enough about the nature of the contact – why the civilian was in contact with the police in the first place – and your comparison to lightning strikes is a strawman, since lightning cannot be held accountable, or failed to be held accountable. Your own statistics also fail to back up your counter-narrative, with .6 percent of black men vs .2 percent of white men experiencing police force – that’s 3x as many.

  6. You’ve established that the odds are small that a given black person will experience violence at the hands of the police. But, blacks are 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police as whites. Now, you may point to the fact that black commit violent crimes at rates higher than whites. But then consider that *unarmed* blacks are twice as likely to be killed by police as whites. (Google just about anything relevant to find this data; ex: July ’16 Wash. Post.) Also, the specific and horrific examples of such brutality against blacks in the last few years are simply not matched by similar ghastly examples against whites. Whether you think this is a major problem – and whether a black person should take solace in the statistic that he is 44 times more likely to be injured in a traffic than by a cop – seems to depend on either your color or your political leanings, or both, but not on the facts.

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