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Damaging Misperceptions

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eye on the news

Damaging Misperceptions

Media coverage leads many Americans to believe that fatal police shootings are far more common than they are. August 11, 2022
Public safety
The Social Order

Many Americans believe that fatal police shootings are far more frequent than they are in reality. A study from the Skeptic Research Center asked 908 participants to guess how many unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019 and what percentage of people killed by police were black. “The more people reported being ‘liberal’ or ‘very liberal’ on social and fiscal matters, the greater the discrepancy between the available data and their estimations,” the study found.

Experts are not immune from this misperception. Consider, for example, Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, formerly legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and recently appointed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. By all accounts an accomplished attorney, Choudhury had held numerous positions within the ACLU of New York before President Biden appointed her to the federal bench. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, an M.P.A. from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University. But as Republican senator John Kennedy noted during her confirmation hearings, Choudhry has said that “the killing of unarmed black men by police happens every day in America.” Choudhry attempted to defend her remarks as having occurred while she was “engaging in rhetorical advocacy” and in her “role as an advocate to make a rhetorical point,” but either way, she was off the mark.

Facts easily disprove the notion that unarmed black men are routinely killed by police. A look at the NYPD’s fatal police shootings, based on publicly available data released by the department (cross-referenced with online police watchdog groups, such as the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, which began in 2015), highlights exactly how rare these instances are in New York. Nationwide, too, the numbers remain far lower than the estimates of liberals. In any case, when analyzing fatal police shootings and comparing across populations, one must also consider differential rates of criminality.

What explains this persistent misunderstanding? As research shows, black and white Americans view the racial divide in America very differently. Blacks tend to be more pessimistic than whites about policing and the criminal-justice system. Seventy-nine percent of African-Americans polled perceived disparate treatment for minorities by the criminal-justice system and viewed it as a large problem, versus just 32 percent of whites.

But while African-Americans hold a dim view of policing fairness in their communities, they still view law enforcement as a necessary function. Since 2020, when defund-the-police efforts gained momentum, a strange phenomenon has emerged. While they remain concerned about police bias, a whopping 81 percent of blacks want police to spend the same amount or more time in their neighborhoods, as determined by a Gallup Panel survey. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: criminality—including violent crime—is more prevalent in minority neighborhoods.

African-Americans deserve to enjoy safe neighborhoods. Yet, per Gallup, “fewer than one in five Black Americans feel very confident that the police in their area would treat them with courtesy and respect” and “seven in 10 Black Americans (71 percent) say they know ‘some’ or ‘a lot of’ people who were treated unfairly by the police.” This is the paradox of police relations within minority communities: residents therein need and want police to enforce the laws in their neighborhoods, but they still feel that police are biased and prone to mistreatment of certain people. Why?

Media coverage seems to explain the persistent overestimates of police shootings. Most American journalists identify as liberal or progressive, and journalism remains stubbornly lacking in diversity of thought. Despite American elections highlighting the nearly 50-50 split along ideological lines, nearly all political donations from those helping shape the news skew in one direction—to the left. This stark contrast directly affects how Americans view perceived racial disparities in fatal police shootings. News consumers are certainly vulnerable to a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic—the susceptibility to a “mental shortcut” due to frequency of exposure. The more the press sounds the alarm that a particular incident is emblematic of a broader, systemic problem (such as inherent racism in policing), the more likely the public is to believe it.

The difficulties lie in how best to counter the tropes and one-sided media coverage. The release of more descriptive statistical studies of other police departments and agencies should assist in refuting these mischaracterizations. Rebuilding trust is essential to improving relations between cops and the communities they serve.

Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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