Systemic Police Racism: The Phantom Menace?

Posted: Jun 17, 2020 9:56 AM
Systemic Police Racism: The Phantom Menace?

Source: AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

The legendary, and liberty-loving, Canadian rock band Rush once sang in Freewill: “There are those who think, That they were dealt a losing hand, The cards were stacked against them. … A prisoner in chains, A victim of venomous fate, Kicked in the face. … If you choose not to decide, You still have made a choice, You can choose from phantom fears.”

(Note: I previously used this song to frame the question and answer to the prior media frenzy and economic chaos regarding Coronavirus: The Phantom Menace? albeit slightly different lyrics.)

So is systemic police racism (SPR) a “phantom fear”, as per the Rush song, or a “phantom menace”, as per the Star Wars movie Episode I, that thus justifies the metaphorical and literal “kick[s] in the face” back from Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa? BLM’s website asserts that there is a “menace” as “Black lives are…systematically targeted for demise” due to “white supremacy” and this is “State-sanctioned”. Let’s test this assertion by examining some of the academic literature.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) provides some useful context in a 2017 paper entitled Race and Hispanic Origin of Victims and Offenders. Chart 1 below from this paper shows: “In 1994, the rate of black-on-white violence [BWV] was higher than the rate of white-on-black violence [WBV]. The rate of [WBV] declined 74%, from 10.2 victimizations per 1,000 black persons to 2.6. The rate of [BWV] declined 80%, from 14.9 victimizations per 1,000 white persons to 3.0.”

A 2002 paper entitled Trends in Mortality Due to Legal Intervention in the United States looked more specifically at “State-sanctioned” police, and can be found on the website of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Chart 2 below from this paper demonstrates: “For all categories examined, rates of death due to legal intervention declined significantly from 1979 to 1988, with the greatest annual decrease observed for Black males aged 20 to 35 years (by 13.9% per year), followed by the decrease observed for all Blacks (by 7.6% per year). From 1988 to 1997, legal intervention death rates remained essentially stable for both White and Black males.”

The NIH listed paper found: “The average annual rates of death due to legal intervention were more than 27 times higher for men than for women.” And: “Mortality rates for both White and Black males were highest in the 20- to 24-year-old age group.” Jumping to conclusions, like leftist activists tend to do, would suggest police are extremely sexist against men and ageist against youth. This paper also found: “Death rates of Black males on average were 4.7 times those of White males from 1979 to 1988 and averaged 3.2 times higher from 1988 to 1997.” But: “Blacks experience both higher rates of victimization by violent crime and higher arrest rates than Whites, thus providing increased opportunities for interaction.”

A 2015 paper entitled Trends in US Deaths Due to Legal Intervention Among Black and White Men (Age 15-34 Years) from the Harvard Public Health Review provides Chart 3 below for 1960 to 2010. This chart appears consistent with Chart 2, but the accompanying text reads less like an academic journal article and more like a political activism blog: “When it comes to reckoning the toll of racial inequality, accountability requires counting.” However, prior to that statement, the paper calmly conceded: “We cannot, based on the limited data available, address debates over whether our findings reflect racially biased use of excessive force.”

Another Harvard-related paper was published in 2016 on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) entitled An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force along with an Appendix. The NBER paper used four data sets and an economic model of police-civilian interactions. This paper found: “On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences – sometimes quite large – in police use of force. … As use of force increases, from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. … On the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we are unable to detect any racial differences.”

The NBER paper concluded: “These facts are most consistent with a model of taste-based discrimination in which police officers face discretely higher costs for officer-involved shootings relative to non-lethal uses of force.” But: “Without randomly assigning race, we have no definitive proof of discrimination.”

Do White Police Officers Unfairly Target Black Suspects? That was the title of a 2016 paper by the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC). The CPRC used multiple data sets and two statistical tests. Original data was also used in Chart 4. This paper found: “Black officers killed unarmed black suspects at a significantly higher rate than white or Hispanic officers.” And: “Both black and white police officers kill unarmed black suspects with higher probability than unarmed white or Hispanic suspects.”

In summary, and making some use of BLM’s language:

  1. The DOJ paper does not support a thesis of increasing “white supremacy” in the wider American society.
  2. The NIH paper offers some support for disproportionate “demise” of not just “black lives” but of males and youth, yet not necessarily “state-sanctioned” nor “systematically targeted” as all three categories commit, and are victimized by, crime at much higher levels which are decreasing over time.
  3. The Harvard paper offers more support for SPR in the 1960s and into the 1970s, with a high point around 1968, but not so much from the early 1980s onwards.
  4. The NBER paper offers some support for “blacks” being “systematically targeted” in a “state-sanctioned” way but less so for “demise” of “lives” however there is no accounting for black (and other non-white) versus white officers and thus no conclusion on SPR.
  5. The CPRC paper suggests if there is any SPR it is more likely to be found amongst black police towards black suspects but with the same caveats as the NIH paper regarding higher offense and victimization rates among blacks especially young males.

In conclusion, the weight of this evidence suggests SPR is more “phantom fear” than “menace”.

It seems appropriate that Rush have the final word, again from the song Freewill: “The stars aren't aligned, Or the gods are malign, Blame is better to give than receive … Each of us, Imperfect and incomplete, Genetic blends. … You can choose from phantom fears, I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose freewill.”

Chart 1

Chart 2

Chart 3

Chart 4