A video of a horrifically unjustified police shooting has thrown fuel on the already inflamed public discourse about alleged police racism and the use of excessive force against black males. On April 4, Walter Scott, a 50-year-old resident of North Charleston, South Carolina, was stopped by a local police officer for driving with a broken taillight. Scott bolted from his Mercedes Benz and ran off—actions captured by the police cruiser’s dashboard camera. When a cell-phone video shot by a bystander starts up several moments later, police officer Michael Slager has caught up to Scott in a grassy field and has already used his Taser against him. Scott and Slager scuffle, before Scott runs away again. Slager unholsters his gun and fires eight rounds at Scott’s back, initially from a distance of half a dozen yards. Scott falls. He dies at the scene.
Since 2013, Scott had been wanted on an arrest warrant for $18,104 in unpaid child support. His Mercedes was unregistered. It’s widely assumed that he fled during the car stop for fear of being jailed on the warrant, as he had been previously for similar nonpayment.
The Scott shooting is a sickening display of police power run amok. Officer Slager shot Scott when he posed no imminent risk of harm. Even if Scott had wrested Slager’s Taser from him, as Slager allegedly reported through an attorney, and even if Scott had tried to use it against him, Slager had no ground for shooting Scott in the back as he fled. Immediately after the bystander video was released, the North Charleston Police Department fired Slager and the local district attorney charged him with murder.
After Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, protesters concocted a narrative in which Brown had been trying to surrender to the officer but was shot in the back for his trouble. The “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative proved to be made up by bystanders, some of whom did not even see the shooting. In North Charleston, however, someone was shot in the back. And the same players—activists and media like—who illegitimately turned the Brown shooting into a symbol of ubiquitous police brutality against black men are now back at it, using the Slager shooting as definitive proof of their longstanding claims about racially predatory police forces. Their main lines of argument are the following: First, innocent minority men are routinely mowed down by the police; second, the police routinely lie about their encounters with minority men; and third, assertive policing in minority neighborhoods is the ultimate culprit behind the alleged epidemic of police homicides. None of these claims is borne out by the evidence.
We don’t know how many people police kill each year. According to the FBI, there are about 400 justified police homicides annually. But reporting to the federal government is voluntary on the part of local police agencies, whether regarding police shootings or crime data. It’s not even known how many agencies report their police homicides to the FBI; one calculation puts that number at around 750, out of approximately 18,000 police departments. Other estimates are higher. The vast majority of departments that report no police homicides to the FBI undoubtedly have no homicides to report. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, using complex statistical sampling rather than actual reports of homicide, has estimated about 1,000 police killings a year from 2003 to 2009—a number that seems high in light of verified reports from actual agencies such as the New York Police Department.
Saying anything definitive about police shootings is therefore difficult. Historically, somewhat less than half of the 400 police homicides reported to the FBI each year have black subjects. This is consistent with the black crime rate. Blacks make up over half of all homicide perpetrators in the country; in 2013, they were 42 percent of all cop-killers, despite being merely 12 percent of the population. From 1980 to 1998, young black males murdered police officers at almost six times the rate of young white males. According to Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, police officers are less likely to kill a black suspect who threatens or attacks them than they are to kill a white suspect who threatens or attacks them. Admittedly, Kleck is working with incomplete data, but his findings comport with other research on officer behavior. A 2007 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that police officers were no more likely to shoot unarmed black men than unarmed white men in video simulations of encounters with armed and unarmed suspects. A 2014 simulation study from Washington State University found that officers waited longer to assess the situation when confronted with black suspects than they did with white suspects.
Data from New York City, where the police maintain highly detailed records on officer use of force, match Kleck’s findings. In 2011, New York officers fired at 41 suspects and killed nine of them—an astonishingly low number in light of New York’s population (over 8 million) and the size of its police force (35,000 uniformed officers). Blacks were 22 percent of those fatalities; whites were 44 percent of police fatalities. Yet blacks were 67 percent of all suspects who fired at the police; no white suspect fired at the police. Moreover, blacks made up 73 percent of all shooting perpetrators in the city in 2011, according to the victims of, and witnesses to, those shootings, though blacks are only 23 percent of the population. Whites committed less than 3 percent of all shootings, though they are close to 35 percent of the city’s population.
It is possible, but unlikely, that a complete data set on police shootings would radically change the picture regarding police shootings. But for now, there is no evidence to show that black men are killed disproportionately to their rate of crime and their rate of threatening officers.
The anti-police activists are also claiming that without the bystander video, the Scott shooting would have been deemed justified—emblematic, they say, of countless other unrecorded officer shootings of blacks that are wrongly deemed justified because the officers lied about them and got away with it. These claims are groundless. It’s not clear from press accounts what exactly Officer Slager said about the Scott shooting in his official report. But the facts would have come out about the Scott shooting with or without the video. The same forensic process that discredited the Michael Brown hoax would have revealed what happened in North Charleston. The autopsy would have shown that Scott was shot in the back; shell casings from Slager’s gun and the location where Scott fell would have shown the distance at which he was shot—crucially, not at close range.
There is no reason to think that officers lie more about their encounters with civilians than vice versa. In fact, the opposite is likely the case. The more cameras taping police-civilian interactions, the better—and to the extent that those videos provide a complete record of police encounters, they will vindicate officer accounts far more often than civilian ones. The Michael Brown saga was a particularly public display of the routine civilian lying about police stops in the inner city. Actress Taraji Henson recently apologized to the Glendale, California, police for falsely claiming that the department racially profiled and mistreated her son during a traffic stop. Evidence discredited New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s claim that his son was abused by Yale University police. In New York City, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which hears complaints about the New York Police Department, substantiated only 7 percent of the complaints it received in 2014; the vast majority of complaints are ungrounded.
Finally, the Scott shooting is inevitably being used as a cudgel against assertive policing. In fact, the press and the advocates are now portraying virtually any enforcement action against a black person—including for traffic violations—as illegitimate. North Charleston has had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation; the local department reportedly had stepped up its enforcement efforts in response. Not so fast, say the New York Times and other eternal cop critics. The shooting represents “a crime strategy gone awry,” the Times announced last week. The paper and a bevy of activists made the identical claim against broken-windows policing in the wake of the Eric Garner death. The broken-windows policing philosophy itself was responsible for Garner’s death, the activists alleged, rather than faulty tactics used during Garner’s stop. Therefore, the argument goes, the police should back off of public order enforcement in minority communities.
This logic is faulty. There has been no more successful government program for saving black lives than assertive policing. In New York City, over 10,000 minority males are alive today who would have been dead had homicide levels stayed at their early 1990s level. And it was proactive policing that lowered the New York homicide rate. In 2012, police departments across the country made over 12 million arrests, issued even more summonses, and had many times more encounters with the public that resulted in neither a summons nor an arrest. A fraction of those encounters will go awry, sometimes tragically, with lethal consequences. But far more minority lives are saved by proactive policing than are wrongly taken by it.
Every year more than 6,000 blacks are homicide victims, more than the number of white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the national population. They are killed not by cops, but by other blacks. For that reason, the press ignores these killings.
On March 11 of this year, as protestors once again converged upon the Ferguson, Missouri, police headquarters demanding the resignation of the entire department, a six-year-old boy name Marcus Johnson was killed a few miles away in a St. Louis park, the victim of a stray bullet fired in a dispute. There were no mass protests over his killing; Al Sharpton did not call for a Justice Department investigation. Few people outside St. Louis even know the boy’s name.
By all means, we must do everything possible to make sure that police departments use force only as an absolute last resort. But let’s spend at least as much energy trying to make sure such killings as that of Marcus Johnson are as rare as the unjustified force used by Officer Slager against Walter Scott.