Statistics on ‘Systemic’ Police Racism Questioned by Scholar

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Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr.

Every year, roughly 1,000 American civilians are killed by police, and while the conversation surrounding racial bias on behalf of the police rages on, some believe the data used to prove “systemic racism” at the hands of police doesn’t share the full story, writes Barry Latzer, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as posted by City Journal. 

According to Latzer, data often used to support the idea that police are acting with a racial bias comes from a New York Times report on a study published in the medical journal Lancet, which shows the federal government’s database of lethal confrontations with police. The database proves that the police “woefully undercounts fatalities,” but Latzer says “this is not new news.”

“It has long been known that the federal database misses many cases,” Latzer details. “What is different here is the study’s claim that there are more black homicides missed than white,” and that the undercounting is due to a failure of the police to acknowledge their role in Black deaths. 

Latzer writes that even with the Lancet data uncovered, the results are “not as racially skewed as claimed,” writing that the data they used compared to the federal government’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) covering a shorter period of time found roughly the same percentage of white individuals killed by police, yet a higher proportion of Black individuals killed. 

This additional data, Latzer writes, shows that “whites are significantly more likely to be killed by police than blacks.” 

Moreover, the New York Times and the Lancet study emphasis a measurement they found, writing that “Black Americans were 3.5 times as likely to be killed by the police as white Americans were.” 

Latzer writes that this may be valid, but that it doesn’t demonstrate systemic racism — adding that the Black suspect police were chasing is more likely to be a murder or assault suspect (69 percent), using a weapon (71 percent), on drugs or alcohol (27 percent), according to NVDRS data from 2017 for a 34-state sample

See Also: Record 69 Percent See Racial Bias in Justice System

Furthermore, Latzer analyzes what he deems as a key question — not how many people per race or ethnic group were killed by police — but rather, “what percentage of each population group is likely to be involved in the circumstances leading to such a death.”

For this, Latzer analyzes FBI crime report data for 2019, showing arrest statistics and a racial/ethnic breakdown of people arrested for violent crimes. This, he says, is nearly identical to the Lancet data on those who died in confrontations with law enforcement. 

Latzer’s analysis shows that 49 percent of individuals killed by police were white, compared to 50 percent of arrests for violent crimes were white. Similarly, 31 percent of individuals killed by police were Black, and 31 percent of arrests for violent crime were Black. Lastly, 17 percent of individuals killed by police were Hispanic, compared to 19 percent of arrests for violent crime were also Hispanic. 

This shows that it marks more sense that the racial/ethnic identities of those killed would bear a “remarkable similarity to the identities of those involved in violent crime,” Latzer notes. 

“No doubt we need a fuller accounting, as the official tallies are clearly incomplete,” Latzer concludes. “But before we accept racial bias as an explanation, we need to take account of the link between the behavior of the people killed and the police use of lethal force.”

Barry Latzer is professor emeritus at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of The Roots of Violent Crime in America. His forthcoming book is titled The Myth of Overpunishment.

Additional Reading: Study: Police Killings Undercounted by Half

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