Police Deadly Force: Then and Now

Yves here. It is noteworthy that some of the findings on police violence in the US don’t hew to popular perceptions, particularly regarding the Deep South. That particular discussion below ties in with an important post we also feature in Links today (hat tip UserFriendly), When Did Democrats Lose the South?

By Rajiv Sethi, Professor of Economics, Barnard College, Columbia University, & External Professor, Santa Fe Institute. Originally published at his website

On Wednesday, October 30 there was an extraordinary conference at the Schomburg Center, marking the 75th anniversary of Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma. The conference was conceived and organized by Alondra Nelson and Dan O’Flaherty, and video of the entire event is available in two parts here (click on the landing page to see a menu). A companion digital platformbrings to a much wider audience research memoranda written by the many exceptional scholars who worked alongside Myrdal, but who remain largely “hidden figures” to this day.
Speakers at the conference were limited to ten minutes. My own remarks were based on Chapter 8 of my recent book with Dan, which draws on material from the Schomburg archives. The text is reproduced below with a few minor edits and links added (the full session is in the Part 2 recordingstarting at around 2:50:00):

I’m so immensely grateful to the organizers for the opportunity to speak on this occasion, with this amazing group of panelists.

I’d like to speak mostly about crime and policing, which is the topic of my recent book with Dan, and how this work led us to the archives of the Schomburg Center in search of information on the history of police-community relations, and data on the historical use of deadly force.

As many other panelists have pointed out, American Dilemma was built on the work of dozens of researchers, who painstakingly assembled vast amounts information. Only part of that knowledge made it into print, much of the rest remains largely hidden from view.

I’ll talk about what Dan and I found in the Schomburg archives in just a few minutes, but let me begin by saying a few words about what we know about police-related homicides today.

One thing we know is that we don’t know much—there’s still no complete and reliable source of official data on the use of deadly force by police in the United States.

As Paul Butler has written in his book Chokehold, the “information about itself that a society collects—and does not collect—is always revealing about the values of that society. We know, as we should, exactly how many police officers are killed in the line of duty. But we do not know, as we should, exactly how many civilians are killed by the police.”

Even James Comey, when he was FBI Director in 2015, described the absence of official statistics on police homicides as embarrassing, ridiculous, and unacceptable.

But over the past few years, unofficial statistics have started to be compiled, some by traditional media organizations like the Guardian and the Washington Post, and others by relatively new online sources like Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters.

These data only go back a few years, but we can already see a few patterns that I’d like to bring to your attention.

First, the scale of police killing in the United States far exceeds that in other comparable countries. According to the Guardian data, police kill about 1,100 civilians a year. In contrast, German police kill about 8 and British police about 2. The US population is about three times as large as these countries combined, but the rate of deadly force is more than a hundred times as great.

Second, there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in exposure to deadly force. The most highly exposed groups are African Americans and Native Americans, followed by Latinos, and the least exposed are whites and Asians. In the Guardian data for example, African Americans are about two and half times as likely to be victims of lethal force relative to white civilians. But these racial and ethnic disparities vary widely by location: in the five largest cities, the ratio of black to white exposure to lethal force ranges from four in Houston to eighteen in Chicago.

Third, there are staggering differences across states in the incidence of lethal force. The deadliest states have about eight times the rate of lethal force as the safest. Police homicides occur most often in Western states and parts of the South. The eight states with the highest incidence in the Guardian data are New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming, West Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Six of these are in the West, the other two in the South. By contrast, the safest states are in the Northeast.

Fourth, extremely large differences also exist among the largest cities. New York and Los Angeles are both large, diverse, coastal, and liberal cities with strict gun laws, but every demographic group is much safer in New York than in Los Angeles today. White civilians in Los Angeles are almost four times as likely to be killed by police as those in New York. Latinos in Los Angeles are more than eight times as likely to be killed as those in New York. And Houston is even deadlier for white civilians than Los Angeles. In fact, the differences in overall rates is so great that white residents of Houston are more likely to be killed by police than African Americans in New York City.

Fifth, and this came as a surprise to us, many states in the South, including the secessionist states of the former confederacy, have smaller racial disparities in exposure to lethal force than states elsewhere. Many of these Southern states have approximate parity between rates of lethal force faced by black and white civilians in the Guardian data. This is true of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee for example.

Bear in mind that these data are very recent and possibly incomplete, so these patterns may not hold up as better data become available. But we can make some tentative comparisons with the 1930s, based on information in the Schomburg archives.

Among the researchers who did the groundwork for American Dilemma was the sociologist Arthur Raper, who surveyed a large number of police departments by mail about police-related homicides in the five years ending in 1940. A total of 228 departments responded. These departments represented about 13 percent of the national population, and about 20 percent of the national black population at the time.

According to Raper’s data, police killed roughly four times as many African Americans as lynch mobs did in the 1930s. In fact, police accounted for more African American deaths than all other white Americans combined. This remains approximately true even today.

Many cities had much higher rates of killing in the 1930s than they do now. Denver, Covington KY, and Jacksonville had rates over fifty per million in the Raper data, and Atlanta, Nashville, Kansas City, and Chattanooga had rates above forty per million. In the Guardian data, only two cities—Miami and Stockton, CA—had rates in this range.

There are fifty-two cities in Raper’s data that had over 50,000 people in 1940. In this group of cities, the rate at which African Americans were killed by police fell from about twenty per million in 1935–1940 to about ten in 2015–2016. So at least in the South, the incidence of lethal force faced by black civilians has declined, although from an extremely high level.

One of the points that Dan and I have explored in our book is that fearsomeness and fearfulness are two sides of the same coin. Murder is the only major crime that can be motivated by pure preemption—people sometimes kill simply to avoid being killed first. This makes fearful people dangerous, and fearsome people afraid. When people can be killed with impunity, these effects are amplified and very high rates of killing can arise in a climate of fear.

In the 1930s fear was rampant—both fear of police and fear by police. Drawing on prior work by H. C. Brearley, Raper observed that between 1920 and 1932, more than half of interracial homicides in which the killer’s identity was known were either slayings of black civilians by white police officers or slayings of white officers by black civilians. Along similar lines, Khalil Muhammad has observed in his pioneering book The Condemnation of Blackness that according to “dozens of letters written by black suspects and convicts to the NAACP in the 1920s, self-defense was one of the most frequently cited causes of interracial homicide of white male citizens and police officers by black men.”

In fact, one of Raper’s most striking findings is the extremely high rate at which officers in the South were killed in the 1930s when compared with today. Among Raper’s respondents, 1.3 police officers were killed per year per million population, while current rates are between 0.1 and 0.2 per year per million. It seems that officers have become much safer from civilians than civilians have become from officers.

Since American Dilemma was largely a study of the South, we don’t have comparable historical data for other parts of the country. What we do know, though, is that variations in the use of lethal force across law enforcement agencies are immense. And these differences persist even when one takes into account such factors as gun prevalence, crime intensity, police-civilian contact, arrest rates, and the degree of danger faced by officers themselves.

It seems that selection, training, leadership, and organizational culture matter a great deal. Put differently, high rates of deadly force arise not from bad apples, but from bad orchards. Certain soils are fertile environments for the growth of practices that result in high rates of killing. We don’t yet have a good understanding of what makes them so. But we do understand that the painstaking work of a team of talented researchers three generations ago, and the efforts to preserve the fruits of their labor right here at the Schomburg Center, will be of enormous help to us as we grapple with these questions.

An additional and very valuable source of historical information on the use of deadly force in the United States is the Kerner Commission report of 1968. The report is discussed at length in the book, and some of the key lessons are described in an article that Dan and I wrote for the Marshall Project a few months ago. An interview with Phillip Adams of Late Night Live on ABC (Australia) and a more recent conversation with Tonya Mosley on NPR’s Here and Now also covers some of this ground.

The book is about much more than deadly force though; it deals with how stereotypes condition and contaminate all sorts of interactions related to crime and the justice system, including interactions between victims and offenders, officers and suspects, prosecutors and witnesses, judges and defendants, and so on. If you have an hour to spare, this detailed, probing conversationwith Mary-Charlotte Domandi of the Radio Café podcast covers the essentials and broader implications of the argument.
And if you happen to be in New York on November 14 and would like to attend a panel on the book, featuring Valerie Purdie Greenaway, Carla Shedd, and Suresh Naidu, please stop by, details here, no registration required.
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  1. Steve Ruis

    It seems clear that the New Jim Crow has characterized young black males as inherently dangerous, making police automatically afraid whenever they encounter one. (This seems true for both black and white officers.) Then laws were established that justified lethal force based upon a feeling of fear in the police officers involved.

    Gosh, what could go wrong?

    A possible way forward is to get rid of the ridiculous “fear for your life” laws. The police are hired and trained (albeit poorly) to deal with the fears we all have and just “feeling fear” shouldn’t be a justification for anything, especially not for a police officer.

  2. Will Shetterly

    This is interesting, but, as usual with studies by capitalists, it ignores class. When you factor that in, it becomes clear that the police are targeting the poor, not black people. For example, this notes, “African Americans are about two and half times as likely to be victims of lethal force relative to white civilians.” That’s because Black Americans are also two and a half times as likely to be in poverty.

    As for “many states in the South, including the secessionist states of the former confederacy, have smaller racial disparities in exposure to lethal force than states elsewhere”, that’s probably because the South has a higher percentage of poor whites.

    1. scarn

      Let’s assume that your claim is true. If it is so that cops shoot black people at a rate that matches the rate at which black people are in poverty, then all that has been demonstrated is that US Capitalism expresses a systemic relationship between race and poverty, which means that class and race remain interconnected, which means that we need to understand the relationship between race and class, which kind of puts us back where we started. Race matters here because class matters here.

      1. Will Shetterly

        Yes, because of our awful class mobility, some groups are disproportionately poor and others, including Asians and Jews, are disproportionately wealthy. But when black and white people of the same class are treated the same, the problem is not racism.

        1. JBird4049

          Yes, and no. If you are black, you are more likely to be murdered, and if you are poor, you are more likely to be murdered by the police.

          So focusing on poverty misses the racism, while focusing on racism misses the poverty.

          It is cumulative, not either, or. I would try using 1=murder for anyone in the United States, add 1 for being poor, than another one for being black. Middle class Joe White is 1, Joe Poor or Joe Black gets another 1 for 2, while poor Joe black gets a total of 3.

          This is a reason that the pale upper classes ignores police homicides. It does not affect them.

          I also think that the mindset of the police has changed since the beginnings of the War on Terror. The police are equipped with military equipment and expected to act like prison guards instead of the lightly armed law enforcement of the past. Police officer Friendly is now prison guard Unfriendly.

          Using the CDC’s statistics for 2017:

          Total homicides for the United States was 19,510
          Firearm homicides in the United States was 14,542

          Using the Guardian’s figures for 2016:

          Using the two sets as if they were the same year, which is problematic, true (2015 had worse numbers than 2016 and who knows what 2017 actually was?) Unfortunately, I cannot find anything with both the detail and the apparent attempts at accuracy as I have with the Guardian.

          Total police homicides for the United States were 1,193 is roughly 6% of the total homicides in the U.S.
          Total police homicides of the unarmed for the U.S. 170 is roughly 14% of the total police homicides.
          Total police homicides of the gun armed in the U.S.506

          Many of those armed either had the weapon in their pocket, glove compartment, drawer, etc (not their hand) or it was often walking stick, flashlight, peppers spray, pocket knife, etc. Very occasionally it is an actual baseball bat or a real knife. Sorry, I do not consider a Swiss army, or boy scout, pocket knife a “knife.”

          There is also the issue of the poor or working class having their tools like knives, or multi-tool, which can be very handy in a warehouse, the trades, or some other jobs. Or if you live in a sketchy neighborhood, even if you don’t carry a gun or a knife, either pepper spray or some other weapon like a small club might handy. That means you are “armed.” It can make some “fear for their life’ or be used as an after the fact justification.

          Despite the improvements, the figures are still not completely reliable. There are departments massaging the instances of crime into different categories. In some places the weapons are found strangely late, or far away, and murders of the unnoticed (homeless, sex workers, the mentally ill) become suicides to improve homicide statistics, which is one of the reasons serial killers sometimes are missed. Or the rape kits that are not tested or are tested decades later, which means a lot of rapists also go unnoticed. I could also add the decline of autopsies which means a lot of murders also slip away.

          What people say about crime going up or down, either in total, or in different categories might be inaccurate.

  3. TimH

    @WS: Your “poor” comment is likely true for police/swat home invasions, where the front door is destroyed by no knock battering ram, occupants treated poorly, with no repercussions under bad or no warrant circumstances. Absolutely zero people in gated communities get this treatment.

  4. ChrisPacific

    If the differences between states are really that large, it would seem to suggest that culture and training of state police forces is a big part of the equation. I have trouble coming up with any possible justification for why lethal force should be 4-8x more common in Los Angeles than New York, for example. They are different, but not that different.

    1. JBird4049

      That is why I feel much, much safer in San Francisco than I do in Vallejo. Not to mention some of the police departments like Santa Rosa using the roads for profit or the more northern departments with issues of violence. The police departments really are that different with the differences of populations not fully explaining the differences.

      And of course the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department which is in its own class.

    2. d

      Suspect its that land is small for its city size. If the increased it the police wouldn’t feel under siege

  5. funemployed

    While this is in no way meant to undermine the role of racial and class-based inequality and animosity in creating these statistics and disparities, I’d also like to posit that in many ways it isn’t quite fair to compare the policing of a heavily armed population (US citizens), with the policing of a minimally armed population (the UK and Germany).

    I’d wager it’s much easier to not kill citizens who are almost certainly not carrying very deadly guns, regardless of training, bias, institutional structure, laws, etc.

    1. JBird4049

      I sometimes hear that merely having guns in the society gives some justification for the abundance of homicidal fear by the police. That one *could* be in danger is not justification. It is an excuse.

      Most Californians ain’t armed and the yet homicide rate is higher California and in Los Angles then New York State and New York City. One can add in that while most of the armed Californians and New Yorkers live *outside* of the Blue coastal cities, but most of the homicides by the police are on the rarely armed people in the city.

      I am not worried about being shot and I do not have body armor and a gun. Why should I as most of the country is quite safe. Even the gun crazy areas.

      Very often anyone not in law enforcement would face charges of murder or man slaughter under the circumstances of when the police usually do shot. Why should the average American be facing life imprisonment or execution when using the same situation, nothing happens to the police officer?

      1. funemployed

        Yeah I agree with all that. Not making a moral argument or defending murderous cops or US justice system in any kinda way. They’re terrible. Just saying it’s comparing apples to oranges.

        Canada would be a better comparison is all. Lots of guns in Mexico too. Both have very different law enforcement practices than the US and each other. Last I checked most UK cops don’t even carry guns, making citizen murder much more difficult.

  6. pcraig

    There are serious training issues of course but I think the screening is an even bigger problem. There seems to be too many weirdos and paranoids aspiring to this difficult profession. As the decades long drug war went along the bar had to be lowered. Also, the militarism increased dramatically because the drug WAR made everyone a suspect. Ex-military should be restricted to a number like 15% of the force, max.

  7. ChrisPacific

    New York has the highest population density of any large US city. If that was true, you’d expect it to have a higher per capita fatality rate than Los Angeles, rather than vice versa.

    1. ChrisPacific

      Meant as reply to d, above (I had a network glitch and the repost didn’t work quite right).

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