Good News from the Manhattan Institute: Police Kill Fewer Black People than Violent Criminals

You heard it here first: Heather Mac Donald’s most recent study from the Manhattan Institute reveals the good (and groundbreaking) news that police kill fewer black people than violent criminals. Mac Donald, as you might recall, was a proponent of the theory that murders were on the rise because of the “Ferguson effect”—that dissatisfaction with the police explained a rise in killings, a claim that wasn’t credible at the time and which has been debunked here. You might be sensing a theme—that statistical analysis isn’t Mac Donald’s strong suit—but this hasn’t deterred her from the important work of continuing to tell people that police violence against black people is no big deal.

Where to start? How about the title: most people are killed by violent criminals because violent criminals are, by definition in the Uniform Crime Reports, those who do violent things.  Police aren’t included in these figures because “The [UCR] program classifies justifiable homicides”—including those by police officers—“separately.” Now you know: most people who are intentionally killed are intentionally killed by murderers. (Note to the HR Department at the Manhattan Institute: if you are looking for another groundbreaking study, I can tell you right now that most people are raped by rapists, not by police, and would be happy to write that up for a fee.)

She states, “It is other black civilians, not the police, who overwhelmingly perpetrate violence in poor, minority communities.”  True.  Most people are not killed by police because most people are not police (only about 618,000 patrol officers in a country of more than 300 million).  Most people are also not killed by dentists, or Duke graduates, or people named Carl, either, because most people aren’t dentists, Duke graduates, or named Carl.  That proves nothing about their moral turpitude or their relative homicidal tendencies. You always bet the field. If, alternatively, there were more homicides from police than non-police (last year that would have meant 13, 472 homicides plus one), then that would mean every year about one in 50 beat officers would kill someone. (These are, in deference to MacDonald, figures based on the killing of all people, not just black people.)

So this latest report is a case of “Duh” (Or, if you prefer, “No duh,” since “duh” is one of those few words whose antonym is actually a synonym). Is this the discussion MacDonald thinks is newsworthy and worth having? Does she think it’s controversial that police kill fewer people than violent criminals? I sure as heck hope that law enforcement kills less often than lawless citizens.  What next—is she going to tell us that most police are not thieves? (Uh, maybe never mind, since asset forfeiture seizures were greater than the losses from burglary last year.)

I’m not aware of anyone saying that cops are the biggest threat to black people in terms of total numbers of deaths.  Based on general population statistics, cancer, suicide, and accidents are bigger threats.  The issue, of course, is differential risk: that black people die more often than white people from police use of force.  To her credit, Mac Donald acknowledges that but states that black people are killed by police at a rate “lower than their share of violent criminals.”  Let’s set aside some of the endogeneity problems of criminal justice statistics (who we catch and arrest depends on who we look for), as well as what can most charitably be described as a scattershot survey of the data (2009 data from the 75 largest counties, figures from 2014 in New York City).  Does this mean we should expect arrests of robbers and people who assault to end in death for the arrestee?  Does a violent crime mean a violent response?

Maybe it does, when race is involved.  Dig into any of the police implicit bias and shooting studies collected here.  Or watch the police do it.  Here are two examples, one of “police shooting black people” and one of “police shooting white people” (which actually turns up mostly videos of police shooting black people). Here’s one where a black man suspected of not wearing his seatbelt is shot. Watch the whole thing. Then watch this video of a white murder suspect not being shot (it’s one of the few videos I could find by searching for police shooting white people).

Mac Donald theorizes that this focus on police violence means police will “back off” policing minority neighborhoods, leading to a greater loss of lives.  I think the causal story here is dubious (what’s the evidence that explains either (a) that police aren’t policing as much, (b) that they are doing so because of community hostility, and (c) that more active policing (whatever that is) would reduce the homicide rate) as is the idea that focusing on police violence is the problem, rather than the police violence itself.  I set the bar higher than Mac Donald does.  I want police to be more restrained than the most violent elements of society.  I want police to administer justice fairly.  And I want those who write about public policy to address good arguments, not straw men.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

David Ball

David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.