An example of media not doing their homework

The below article contains impartial data analysis and demonstrates three things:

  1. Jumping to conclusions can get you into trouble.
  2. The media don’t generally do their homework. Perhaps that’s because the under-researched narrative sells more copy while in-depth analysis/research takes time and effort.
  3. We mostly follow our preconceptions.

The data below speaks for itself, and by reading the data analysis minus the rhetoric hopefully we all can draw our own conclusions based on facts. 

I got to thinking about the issues of race regarding the recent tragic police shootings, both the shootings of police and the shootings by police. The best data is from the Washington Post, which has a detailed site listing all of the people killed by police, which begins in 2015 and goes to the present. I thought I’d analyze their data…

First, there were 990 fatal police shootings in 2015. How does this compare to other causes of death? Well, I can’t tell you because so few people are killed by police. The number is so small that it is outside the range of the usual mortality lists. I can say that death by police is not in the top fifty causes of death in the US, so it is relatively rare. It is extremely rare for women, because the overwhelming majority of those killed by police were men.  And I would be greatly remiss if I did not highlight that in addition to the 990 civilian deaths, there were 51 police deaths in 2015 …

Regarding the civilians killed by police, more than nine-tenths of them were armed at the time—58% of the people killed had a gun or explosives, 17% wielded a knife or edged weapon, 9% were unarmed, 6% used a vehicle, and tragically, 3% had a toy weapon. The rest used mostly clubs, hatchets, hammers, baseball bats, the usual assortment of your basic stone age deadly weapons that can kill you just as dead now as they could in 1500 BC.


By race and ethnicity, there were 494 whites, 258 blacks, 172 Hispanics, 15 Asians, 14 American Indians or Alaskan natives, 9 “other” races, and 28 deaths with the race not specified. Which leads to the question … is there a racial imbalance? And in particular, are African-American people being killed at an excessive rate?


Now, many folks calculate the death rates of the groups by comparing the numbers killed, to the corresponding numbers of that group in the general population … but you can’t do that. It leads to wildly incorrect conclusions. Here is an example that shows why comparing numbers of police shootings to the corresponding number of individuals in the general population leads to big errors:

Men make up about 50% of the general population, but men comprise 96% of those killed by police. Does this huge number of “excess male deaths” prove that the police are being sexist and that they are biased against men? Does this imbalance in the number of men killed mean that we need a “Male Lives Matter Too” movement?

Of course not. Instead, it simply demonstrates that men both commit and are arrested for far more crimes of violence than women; that men are far more likely than women to both carry and use weapons; that men are far more likely to both threaten and commit serious violence against a police officer than are women; and most importantly, that men are far more likely than women to violently resist arrest.

The one thread in the Washington Post database that is common to the overwhelming majority of police shootings is that almost all of the civilians were killed while resisting arrest. The records of the deaths show that to keep from going to jail, people were fighting with the police; they were shooting at the police; if they didn’t have a weapon handy they were punching the police or trying to drown the police; they were trying to run the officer over with a car or smash the officer’s skull with a baseball bat … but regardless of the endless variations of method, almost everyone killed by the police was in exactly the same situation—no less than 97% of the people fatally shot by police were killed during the course of an arrest that went bad when the people tried to resist.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Certainly there were people unjustifiably killed during 2015. Even though only about three percent were not resisting arrest, that’s still thirty-four deaths of people who were not resisting the police when they were killed … double-plus ungood. And resisting arrest doesn’t automatically justify a death sentence. I’m sure you all remember the unarmed black man who was shot and killed in February 2015 in a Pennsylvania restaurant, while lying face down on the floor after being tasered. So yes, wrongful and unjustifiable deaths do occur. In addition, as happens most years, there were people killed by accident in 2015, like the bystander to a gun battle between undercover police and violent criminals who was killed by a badly aimed police bullet. And there were a couple of tragic misperceptions of the type where someone was holding a cell phone and the officer thought it was a gun.

But justified or not, 97% of the deaths by police were variations on a simple age-old theme—someone was violently resisting arrest, usually with a weapon of some sort, and the arrest went bad.
Now, I demonstrated above with men versus women that you can’t simply compare killings against the corresponding raw population figures. It gives us very wrong answers. So what should the number of killings be compared to?

Since the common thread in the killings is that the person was resisting arrest, we need to compare how often people of each race get killed by police, with how often people of the same race get arrested by police. But clearly, we’re not interested in arrests for jaywalking and the like. Since 97% of these deaths are occurring in the context of people violently resisting arrest, they are best compared to the corresponding number of arrests for violent crimes.

Here are the results of that comparison for 2015.

For every 10,000 white people arrested for a violent crime, 38 white people were killed by police (± 2).
For every 10,000 hispanic people arrested for a violent crime, 21 hispanic people were killed by police (± 3).
For every 10,000 black people arrested for a violent crime, 21 black people were killed by police (± 2).
Go figure … I was as surprised as you, so I’ve triple checked the numbers, and it’s true—the odds of a given arrest going bad and ending up in a death are much greater for white men than for black or hispanic men.

Please note that this result says nothing about the existence of racist police officers in America. Sadly, while the situation is immensely better than in my youth, we know that there are still far too many racists in the US … including in the police forces.

And it says nothing about racist policing in America. Again the beneficial changes in my lifetime have been huge, but there still remain any number of places where DWB is often a crime, and jurisdictions where people of color are regularly harassed and stopped by police.

Are there unjustified killings among the Washington Post data? You can be certain there are, it is a rare but real issue. Is there more work to be done? Assuredly. But the Post data doesn’t and can’t answer those questions

What the Washington Post data can and does show us is that death at the hands of police is a problem for people of all races and ethnicities. It’s not something happening preferentially to black people, quite the opposite. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen a lot, but whenever it happens, we need to make sure it was justified … and if not, we need to hold the responsible parties to account.

What we don’t need to do is to turn an issue of excessive use of police force into a racial issue.

Now, I’m your basic melanin-deficient guy. My mom said the same thing to me that good moms of every color all over America say to their sons, which can be boiled down to “If you get in trouble with the police, do what they tell you, be respectful, and don’t resist arrest!”.  And like a good son, I followed my mom’s advice the three times that my corpus delecti was deposited in a squad car and hauled off ignominiously to the local cop shop to answer questions, the one time I was arrested and jailed and rather unceremoniously sentenced and tossed into prison for twenty days, and another four times when I was stopped and questioned and searched by police, once unexpectedly at night in an isolated area at gunpoint, scary stuff. Ah, the joys of youth, I was a regular stop-and-frisk magnet as a somewhat scruffy long-haired young man.

Despite my rather colorful past, as a result of listening to my mom I’m not a statistic. I shut my mouth and went along to get along. The numbers are undeniable, the conclusion is obvious. If you don’t want to die at the hands of the police, DON’T RESIST ARREST!

That doesn’t mean that the deaths of the 97% who were resisting arrest are justified, that’s a totally separate question. Undoubtedly, some were justified and some weren’t. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t unjustifiable deaths, they do exist. There just aren’t many of them. All it means is if you don’t want to get killed by the cops, don’t resist arrest.

Look, if you want to avoid shark attacks, it’s simple—stay in the shade of an oak tree. It’s the best shark repellent known. And if you want to avoid dying at the hands of the police, remember what your mom said, and simply and politely do what the police tell you to do. The job of the police is tough enough, they are already on edge, as they should be given the potential danger of every arrest. So smile and go along, stay safe in the shade of the oak tree. It’s not rocket surgery. If you don’t resist, your odds of getting killed are minuscule. Not zero, to be sure, and you also might win the lottery, but if you’re not resisting arrest it’s almost certain that you won’t be killed by the police.

Here’s the final curiosity. According to the actual data above, it appears that the mothers of black and hispanic men are doing a better job of getting that message across to their sons than are the white moms, and that black and hispanic men have paid more attention to their moms’ universal message. After all, arrests of white men end up in their death nearly twice as often as do the arrests of  black and hispanic men … I ascribe it to arrogance. In my experience, white guys of the kind who run afoul of the law are more likely to challenge and mouth off to the cops, and are more apt to believe they’re invincible, bulletproof, and above the law. But hey, that’s just me, your explanation may vary.

To read this rather long but fascinating article in full click here.




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