By the numbers, police use force in a tiny fraction of encounters with civilians, roughly 1 percent to 2 percent. But a new study by a racial justice-oriented think tank provides some confirmation of the racial disparity in police use of force that black Americans experience as a daily fact of life and that too many white Americans refuse to acknowledge.
The study by the Center for Police Equity found that police use force against African Americans more than three times as often as they do against whites. Specifically, the mean rate for black residents is 273 instances per 100,000 residents in the 19 communities included in the two-year study: 3.6 times greater than the mean rate of 76 instances per 100,000 white residents. The mean rates for Hispanics were just below those for whites and the mean rates for Asians were very low: 15 instances per 100,000 residents.
The disparity is significant but somewhat smaller for use of force in arrests. The study calculated 46 instances of use of force per 1,000 arrests of African Americans, about 30 percent higher than the average for whites: 36 instances per 1,000 arrests. Paradoxically, however, the study found the disparity reversed for arrests of violent offenses: force was 40 percent more likely to be used when arresting a white than a black for a so-called Category I offense.
Arguably, that paradox substantiates rather than contradicts the suggestion of an implicit racial bias on the part of police forces nationwide. The disparity emerges not when dealing with serious criminals, but with less serious law violators such as Alton Sterling, killed Tuesday for selling loose CDs on a Baton Rouge, La., street corner, and Philando Castile, killed Wednesday for driving with a broken tail light in St. Anthony, Minn.
Both deaths are officially under investigation, even after the cellphone videos have gone viral. Whatever the results of those investigations, however, Minnesota’s white governor, Mark Dayton, was undoubtedly right when he said that Castile would not have been killed as he reached for his ID, not his gun, if he had been white.
In another seemingly paradoxical result, the study found police more likely to use lethal force against whites than against blacks, but nonlethal force hands and body, pepper spray, tasers, canines was more likely to be employed against blacks than against whites. Overall, the study calculated a comparison based on the count and the severity that found use of force 3.8 times greater for blacks than for whites.
By the numbers, police-civilian encounters are far more likely to be fatal for civilians than for cops. The Washington Post’s comprehensive compilation counted 491 civilian deaths for the first six months of 2016, up 6 percent from the 465 in the same period in 2015. The Post’s numbers apparently do not include Sterling or Castile.
Add one more: Micah Xavier Johnson, the black assassin who killed five officers and wounded seven others in downtown Dallas, before being taken out by a police-guided robot-bomb. Johnson, a 25-year-old Army veteran, was motivated, according to his words as reported by Dallas police, by hatred of whites, and especially white police officers.
The five deaths were reported in the Post on Friday [July 8] on the front page, just above the previously planned, long takeout headlined, “Deadly shootings by police on the rise in 2016.” In the web version, the Post also included a table showing 20 police officers shot and killed in the first six months of 2016, up 25 percent from the 16 counted in the same period in 2015.
The deaths in Dallas bring that number to 25 for 2016. The calculated nature of Johnson’s killings, and his explicit racial motivation, make the officers’ deaths more than a tragedy but an outrage. But assassinations cannot be anticipated nor assuredly prevented. No policy recommendations emerge from the horror in Dallas beyond Sgt. Phil Esterhaus’s daily roll-call admonition on Hill Street Blues: “Be careful out there.”
There are policies, however, to deal with the problem of police use of force and the racial disparities. The Dallas police department is taking credit for training officers in “de-escalation” well before other cities, training that might have averted the deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Anthon and perhaps many others. Police forces also need to be more diverse, more representative of the communities they serve, and more sensitive to the cultural and social traditions of the people they serve.
After Dallas, the dominant theme in news stories and commentary was, “Nation on edge.” Police feel beleaguered, but so do many, many black Americans. Like the Dallas officers’ deaths, Sterling’s and Castile’s death are more than a tragedy but an outrage. Perhaps these black lives can matter if they help build pressure for police to make meaningful changes in their policies and practices to protect and serve all, without regard to race. So far, as the Washington Post observed editorially, the moves in that direction have been “grievously inadequate.”