Social Update: Deadly Use of Force—Transforming the Narrative

Ron Chapple

Ron Chapple

It is hard to ignore the preponderance of police-involved shootings in our current social landscape. Social media spreads the news like wildfire; in most cases, way before anyone has a comprehensive understanding of the incident. By the time investigators get involved, a mindset among the public has been created—people of color are being killed, and the racist police are to blame. This narrative, however, does nothing to solve the problem. It pits communities and the justice system against each other, which exacerbates the problem instead of inspiring solutions. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that these incidents are political currency for our ongoing presidential election. Whether political leaders tout #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, or #BlueLivesMatter, it creates an air of divisiveness—it’s challenging to find common ground when we lack guidance from our purported leaders. It would help if our leaders focused on the facts rather than pandering to public outcry. For example, did you know Native Americans are disproportionately killed, by police when compared with blacks and  whites? Unfortunately, #NativeAmericanLivesMatter hasn’t picked up the same kind of traction as other social media campaigns and doesn’t make it to the bully pulpit. So what do we do? As I’ve recommended before, it’s important to look at the data first, and then formulate an opinion on the issue. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of data for deadly use of force by police. Instead, the public has been misled by the vociferous few that tend to use feeling and not facts.  Fortunately, institutions have turned to crowdsourcing information to formulate a comprehensive—by no means complete—list of police-involved shootings, so that we can begin coming up with solutions to the problem.

Source Data: The Count from The Guardian (2016)

Source Data: The Count from The Guardian (2016)

Input, need more input!: Today, The Guardian Newspaper is spearheading the effort to track all incidents of deadly use of force by police. In total, 804 people have died in confrontations with police in 2016, as of September 29. Of the 804 cases, 23 have sparked national outrage (see timeline figure). Death by gunshot is the most common manner in which suspects were killed in the high profile cases. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t differ much from all suspects that were killed by police in 2016. In other words, police are not disproportionately using a different form of force in these high profile cases (e.g. Eric Garner, 2014, New York). 

Source Data: The Count from The Guardian (2016)

Source Data: The Count from The Guardian (2016)

Some disturbing details emerge when high profile cases are compared to all cases where deadly force was used. First, among total cases, a suspect often brandishes a weapon. In contrast, suspects in high profile cases were nearly three times as likely to be unarmed (16% versus 44%). This fact alone is enough to augment the social unrest. Furthermore, whether one-fifth of high profile suspects were even armed, remains disputed. Keep in mind the sample size is small, so this may reflect a trend that may not hold over time. Nonetheless, the continual tracking of this data by The Guardian and other news sources, such as the Washington Post, will enable us to construct an informed narrative about the state of deadly use of force, by police, instead of relying on incomplete truths. 

Source Data: The Count from The Guardian (2016)

Source Data: The Count from The Guardian (2016)

Dispelling the Myths: To counter the 'racist police' narrative, certain media outlets report whites are more likely to be killed by police than blacks. According to The Guardian’s data, this statement is mostly true. In 2016, 395 whites were killed in comparison to 198 blacks. Therefore, police killed twice as many whites. However, blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police when total numbers are normalized to population. In other words, you are more likely to be killed by police if you are black than white. Furthermore, black suspects are more likely to endure some form of force, according to recent Harvard study. Harvard researchers make three important conclusions: blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force; in the most extreme cases (officer involved shootings) they were unable to detect any racial differences; but the willingness for police departments to provide unbiased factual information, may obfuscate identifying racial discrimination. In other words, it is too early to determine if systemic racism exists within police departments around the United States, but white suspect don't seem to be mistreated as often as black suspects. Still, there isn't enough data to draw from to make informed conclusions. This shortcoming illustrates an important and obvious point—be careful what you read in popular media. In our click-bait type culture, some news sources are less interested in propagating a complete narrative.

Overall, the data doesn’t support the conclusion that police officers are racist toward black suspects. However, there appears to be a disproportionate number of blacks engaging with police and, upon doing so, inequitable amounts of force is used. Until we amass enough data to get a more complete picture, we might consider implementing bold solutions to build trust between police and the public. Minneapolis is pioneering an effort to make police officers more accountable for their actions. Briefly, activists are working to require police offers to carry liability insurance. If a police officer is a high-risk, they are unlikely to get insurance coverage, and therefore, cannot be a patrol officer. This type of accountability holds to significantly transform the policing landscape and I believe focusing on solutions instead of belaboring the problem will quell the unrest.