A Spark in the Tinderbox
Posted On June 5, 2020
Over the last two weeks, American attention has moved rapidly from the Covid-19 lockdown to the George Floyd homicide and its aftermath. This blog post takes on some of the highly complex and controversial topics related to Mr. Floyd’s killing, in an effort to provide an even-handed analysis on race and policing as a general proposition across the United States.
The George Floyd Homicide
On May 25, 2020, black Minneapolis-area resident George Floyd died while being restrained by a Minneapolis police officer after being handcuffed. Mr. Floyd’s death – recorded on numerous videos from bystanders and other cameras near the scene – appears to have resulted from the arresting officer holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck while the victim lay prostrate in a face-down position on the ground. Mr. Floyd complained to the officer that he “couldn’t breathe” and nearby bystanders also suggested to the arresting and other policer officers at the scene that Mr. Floyd was in distress. The arresting officer has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Mr. Floyd’s death, while three other police at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Within a few days of Mr. Floyd’s death, protestors in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area took to the streets to decry the incident. These protests turned violent, and involved property damage, looting, and arson. Over the past week, many communities across the United States have seen protests of their own decrying Mr. Floyd’s homicide, ranging from quite peaceful to widespread rioting and looting. Where protests have turned ugly, there have often been back-and-forth accusations between local police and upset citizens regarding responsibility for escalations in hostilities between these groups. While images appear to show that most of the protestors are African American, a significant number of white protestors, including some from fringe leftist groups known to advocate unrest, have participated in the protests. (The exacerbating factor of lockdowns that have kept many young people cooped up for months will not be a topic of inquiry in this piece but should also be noted.)
This blog post will keep the topic of inquiry narrow to that of race and policing. There are underlying issues – economic and social disparities and claims of structural racism – that must be discussed in connection with a full analysis of race in America, but these topics are far too involved for a blog post.
Do the Protests Have Merit?
There can be no real debate that the impetus for the protests is the long-held belief in the African American community that being black subjects a person to unfair treatment at the hands of the police (or more bluntly, racist policing). While it remains beyond dispute that African Americans were subject to state-sanctioned violence in past eras, does that legacy persist in 2020? Based on the information we have available to us, the answer is complex, as it appears to justify the basis of the protests but undermine the narrative about most of the flashpoints for the same protests (which nearly always involve the death of a black male in an interaction with police).
Turning first to the concept of police misconduct, there is real evidence of racial disparities regarding the use of low and moderate levels of force by police. In 2016, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, an African American scholar, comprehensively assessed police use of force in an ambitious empirical analyses on this topic. Dr. Fryer’s results revealed that, during arrest, African Americans and Hispanics were 50% more likely to be subject to some use of force than whites, a disparity that cannot be fully accounted for by the conduct of the person being arrested.
Likewise, recent analysis of data from the now under scrutiny Minneapolis police department also shows a significant racial disparity between use of force at the time of arrest and criminal convictions (specifically, 63% of arrests involving force were of black Americans while only 47% of criminal convictions in this city involved this group). These are but two assessments of use of force; however, a survey of the body of evidence dedicated to this topic suggests that African American complaints about unfair policing are meritorious.
That said, much of the discussion about racist policing has centered upon police shootings and the stark allegation that police are killing young African American males in cold blood (or, more hyperbolically, that being black means one’s life is at perpetual risk in police-citizen encounters). Shootings are the salient issue here because the use of physical force in arrests of the sort that killed Mr. Floyd and Eric Garner (an African American man who died during a Staten Island arrest several years ago) results in death only an exceedingly small fraction of the time, while discharging a firearm is often deadly.
Quite frankly, there exists far less support establishing the truth of the argument that police shootings have a racial basis. First, based on the comprehensive police shootings data amalgamated by the Washington Post over the past several years (a project the paper put in place after Michael Brown’s death in a Ferguson, Missouri police shooting), a typical year sees 250-300 African American males killed in police shootings; the number of whites who die in this manner tends to be roughly double the AA total. An estimate of the African American population in the entire United States is 48M, of which approximately 24M are male and at least one-third (8M) are between the ages of 15-40 (the sex and age cohort most likely to be on the wrong end of police violence). Assuming 275 African American males between the ages of 15-40 perished in a given year in police shootings, that would mean 1 out of 29,000 men in this age range annually (this analysis assumes out the existence of women and men outside the 15-40 age range being killed, though such groups obviously constitute some of the fatalities from police shootings).
Not only are police shootings rare, but the Fryer study cited above somewhat controversially determined via a multi-factorial analysis of police shootings that officers were not more likely to discharge their weapons against minority suspects. A more recent study by researchers at Michigan State and Maryland, assessing race and policing from a slightly different angle, found no racial disparity between the likelihood of white and black police officers to shoot black suspects (that is, there existed no racial differential between the use of deadly force by white and black officers against black suspects). Notably, the same study also found that the variable most determinative of the likelihood of an officer-involved shooting was the violent crime rate in the area of the shooting.*
Accordingly, the best statistical evidence regarding race and policing reveals a dichotomy that may startle many readers. The claim that police killings are racially motivated is dubious, while low levels of police violence do appear to disproportionately affect African Americans.
How Did We Get Here?
This is actually a two-part question. First, how can we possibly explain the dichotomy between low and moderate police violence unjustly impacting African Americans but data on police shootings not supporting the claim of bias? Second, how did we arrive at a situation where the discussion of racism in policing has become such a flashpoint in America?
Turning to the former question about how the claim of bias in police shootings appears to be less valid than the claim of bias in less severe forms of policing, the answer is intuitive – the costs of discharging a weapon to a police officer are exceedingly high, both professionally and psychologically. Even where a policeman or woman fires his or her weapon under the most warranted circumstances, there is likely to be an investigation into that matter commanding substantial time and effort of the officer. Where the circumstances of the shooting are questionable, the officer may face professional discipline, termination, or even criminal prosecution. And these matters don’t even account for the psychological toll of possibly ending another life. In effect, for even an officer oriented towards “racist policing,” the decision to take a life is of utmost importance, almost certainly more critical than the race of the suspect being shot at. However, the use of lesser variations of force are not so constrained by the substantial consequences of discharging a weapon, and should an officer be so inclined to rough up or hassle members of a certain racial group, the ramifications for doing so are often non-existent. Furthermore, in answering the second question about racism in policing, substantially more African Americans are potentially the subject of low levels of violence at the hands of police (or even on the wrong end of a lack of respect not involving violence at all), actions that, compounded over time, generate community-wide animosity towards the police. In effect, a valid perception of all-too-common mistreatment guides all perceptions of police/community relations, even in subjects that where race does not appear to offer a meaningful explanation for outcomes (such as police shootings).
How Do We Change?
As a general proposition, this is not a blog that regularly asks questions about “change,” as the writer is an advocate of American exceptionalism with an emphasis on the word “exceptional.” However, in this case, a call for change is warranted, and the relations between police and African Americans must improve.
To effectuate change, the police must take the lead, though the discussion does not end there. First, police departments must be proactive about training their personnel to treat all citizens with equal dignity (some departments have already achieved such a goal, others are behind). In a way, George Floyd, who was already handcuffed, died because the arresting officer did not accord him the basic dignity of considering his request to be allowed to breathe after he’d been handcuffed. While a lack of respect demonstrated towards citizens rarely results in a fatality, systematic failures by a police department to accord it generate enmity among the population. Second, police departments must hold rogue officers accountable for bad behavior and, where warranted, remove them from the force. In doing so, the extensive powers of police unions to oppose and fight officer discipline must be restrained, perhaps by even a removal of such powers from collective bargaining rights. Moreover, technology allows departments to maintain real-time data on officer uses of force and can be utilized to identify and correct (or stamp out) questionable conduct. Third, the wide berth given by courts to qualified immunity of public servants (including police officers) must be reconsidered; while the elimination of the doctrine may not be prudent, restraining it is a must. Fourth, both national and state legislators should think long and hard about decriminalizing low level misconduct, such as the ridiculous “illegal sale of loose cigarettes” charge on which Mr. Garner was being arrested, an act which would have the added benefit of freeing up police to dedicate more resources to serious crime.
That said, should police departments and the law be responsive to the issues of racial disparities in policing, the African American community must respond in kind by treating the police as an ally in the fight against serious crime, particularly in neighborhoods most suffering under the oppression of wrongdoers. Crimes are solved when regular citizens are forthright about their knowledge of illegality. Without police receiving this assistance from the community, criminals are the beneficiary, as their crimes are not prosecuted and they remain free to plague the streets, further poisoning police-citizen interactions.
Ultimately, the improvement in relations between police and African Americans is a two-way street with tangible benefits to both sides, and thus change in the interactions between these two groups should be achievable.
*This is particularly notable because the counterargument to the position that race is not a meaningful factor in police shootings is that far more black males are killed by police than white males, as roughly 96 of 100,000 black men die at the hands of police over the course of a lifetime while only 39 of 100,000 white men are killed in the same manner. However, disentangling this statistic from the rate of violent crime across different populations is statistically dubious, and the Maryland/MSU study speaks to exactly this reality, finding that the rate of violent crime in the area of a police shooting is the most important factor in the likelihood of a police shooting.