Robert VerBruggen is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the new report, “Fatal Police Shootings and Race: A Review of the Evidence and Suggestions for Future Research.” He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
What did the data you reviewed say about the “Ferguson narrative,” which holds that police disproportionately use lethal force against African-Americans? Does it wholly rebut that narrative?
The data certainly rebut the most extreme versions of the Ferguson narrative, which originated in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in that city in 2014. In surveys, many people say that they think American cops kill 1,000 unarmed black men every year, but the real number averages out to more like 20, and it’s even lower than that if you just look at suspects who weren’t attacking someone when they were shot.
About a quarter of people shot by the cops are black, which is about double the black share of the overall population—but it’s in line with many other benchmarks you might compare it to, such as the black share of arrestees, or cop-killers, or homicides. In other words, the overall racial breakdown of people shot by police isn’t surprising, given the demographics of crime.
But these are just simple numbers, and there are more complicated methods you can use to try to find bias. That’s where the story gets more nuanced. For example, it’s worrisome that the black share of unarmed people shot and killed by police is a bit higher than the overall black share of police killings. And one study I found especially troubling showed that, in one city, white cops are several times as likely as black cops to fire their guns when they’re sent to 911 calls in black neighborhoods.
As a whole, these data don’t support the extreme narrative—and that’s important—but we still have much to learn.
What did you find in the way of geographical differences on officer-involved shootings—for example, between regions or localities, or between urban, suburban, and rural areas?
Some places have far higher rates of police shootings than others, and these differences don’t seem purely driven by crime rates. The West, Southwest, and Appalachia really stand out in that regard. One study found that blacks are more likely to be killed by police if they live in urban areas, while whites get killed more in rural areas. This is an important area for future research—figuring out whether these trends owe to cultural differences in attitudes toward lethal force, or if cops really do face much worse threats in these places.
Why does so much of the data on police shootings come from private rather than government sources?
Governments did a bad job keeping track of these deaths—various databases were supposed to count them, but all fell far short of doing that—and private-sector analysts stepped up over the past five or ten years. Some efforts to improve the government tallies are underway, albeit slowly, and with luck these will come together before private sources lose interest.
What could be done to improve information gathering on police shootings and race?
Collect all sorts of data and analyze it carefully. The private efforts are doing a good job tracking fatalities, but many police shootings are non-fatal, and the current databases don’t capture some important information, like the race of the officer. When a government agent kills someone in an official capacity, the public needs to know exactly what happened. And if we want to know how and why these incidents happen, we need all the information we can get.
Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images