The truth about crime, race, and policing in America

On May 25th, four Minneapolis police officers arrested a man for passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. One of the officers kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes while Mr. Floyd was handcuffed on the ground and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Mr. Floyd died of a heart attack during the arrest. The next day, Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey announced that whatever the investigation into Mr. Floyd’s death revealed, “being black in America should not be a death sentence.”

Mayor Frey’s interpretation of Mr. Floyd’s horrifying end that it was a function of his race instantly became universal. That idea was coupled with the claim that Mr. Floyd’s death was representative of an epidemic of racially biased police killings of black men. Together these two claims triggered an explosion of violence in Minneapolis and across the country destroying thousands of livelihoods, turning city streets into war zones, and ripping apart the very foundation of law and order. Police officers were shot at, slashed, and assaulted with bricks and bottles. Their precinct houses and cruisers were firebombed. Courthouses were vandalized. Firefighters let public and private property burn to the ground rather than risk being attacked by the rioters. Professional thieves used stolen cars as missiles to hurtle into stores, which they then cleaned out through the shattered glass.

The flames of that terrible week have burned out but the attack on civil order continues. Monuments to the nation’s founders have been torn down and defaced. Anarchists colonized portions of Seattle and New York with impunity. Violence has become the responsive choice to any criminal justice decision the activists do not like. In mid-July, vandals tried to torch the Georgia Department of Public Safety as part of ongoing protests against the police in Atlanta. In Salt Lake City, vandals broke the windows of the district attorney’s office and pepper-sprayed police officers after the district attorney declined to prosecute an officer-involved shooting. Courthouses and police precincts remain favored physical targets. In Portland for weeks on end, Antifa thugs have hurled bombs at the federal courthouse. They have tried to blind federal agents with lasers. And across the country, police officers are routinely attacked as they try to make a lawful arrest.

The unchecked anarchy of those riots and their long aftermath have sent a clear message to criminals: No one is controlling the streets. Gang shootings and homicides have spiked nationwide as a demoralized police force pulls back from discretionary stops and arrests. In the weeks following the Floyd riots homicides were up by a hundred percent in Minneapolis, 200 percent in Seattle, 40 in St. Louis, 240 in Atlanta, and 182 in Chicago. In New York City, shootings have more than doubled so far in 2020 compared with last year. In June, 97 percent of New York shooting victims were people of color. Since George Floyd’s death at least 35 children under the age of 18 have been fatally shot, nearly all black.

We have been here before. In 2015 and 2016, homicides in the U.S. saw their largest increase in nearly 50 years following the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Brown’s death fueled the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cops backed off from proactive policing, having been relentlessly told that they were racist, for example, to question someone hanging out on a known drug corner at one a.m. hitching up his waistband as if he had a gun. As a result of this decline in discretionary enforcement, another 2,000 blacks lost their lives in 2015 and 2016 compared to 2014 numbers. The rapid rise of crime over the last two months makes that first version of what I’ve called the Ferguson Effect look like child’s play. Today’s Ferguson Effect 2.0 — or better the Minneapolis effect — promises far worse especially since the Black Lives Matter narrative that policing in the U.S. is lethally racist has been amplified by every mainstream institution in the country. A lot is riding, therefore, on whether that narrative about the police is correct, not just thousands of lives but the very possibility of a civilized society. Essential criminal justice practices are being rapidly dismantled in the name of fighting alleged law enforcement bias. So is it true as democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced after Mr. Floyd’s death, that every time a black person leaves his house his family members need to fear for his safety from the police? It is not. The idea that the police are wantonly killing black men is a creation of a politicized press and an elite establishment dedicated to the idea that racism is America’s defining trait.

Today I’m going to examine three types of evidence for the Black Lives Matter claim about police racism, the raw numbers on police shootings, and deaths individual cases like Mr. Floyd’s and academic research.

The raw numbers are these every year the police fatally shoot about a thousand people the vast majority of whom are threatening the officer or bystanders with deadly force. About 50 percent of those police fatalities are white and about 25 are black. The Black Lives Matter folks look at that 25 number and proclaim police bias since blacks are about 13 of the population. That is the wrong benchmark, however. If there is one thing you should take away from today’s discussion it is that police activity must be measured against crime, not population ratios. Every article you read, every news story you watch in the mainstream media, will compare police activity to a population benchmark because that is the only way that the Black Lives Matter narrative can be sustained. Such an analysis ignores the fact that policing today is data-driven. Officers are deployed to where people are most being victimized, and that is in minority neighborhoods. And it is in minority neighborhoods where officers are most likely to interact with armed violent and resisting suspects. Here are the victimization data. Nationwide blacks between the ages of 10 and 43 die of homicide at 13 times the rate of whites according to the CDC. In Minnesota, blacks of all ages die of homicide at 12 times the rate of whites. You might think that the Black Lives Matter activists would care about such loss of black life, but you would be wrong. They ignore those black deaths because the victims are killed overwhelmingly not by the police not by whites but by other blacks.

Here are the criminal offending data. In the 75 largest U.S. counties which is where most of the population resides blacks constitute around 60 percent of all murder and robbery defendants according to the bureau of justice statistics though they are only 15 percent of the population in those counties. Nationwide blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. In Chicago, blacks commit about 80 percent of all shootings and homicides though they are less than a third of the population. Whites commit about two percent of all shootings and homicides in Chicago though they too are less than a third of the population. In a typical year, blacks in St. Louis commit all or nearly all homicides though they are less than half of the population. In New York city blacks commit a little less than 75 percent of all shootings on average though they are 23 percent of the city’s population. Whites commit less than three percent of all shootings in New York city though they are 34 percent of the city’s population.

These crime disparities have enormous consequences for police use of force. The biggest determinant of officer behavior is civilian behavior. The greater the chance that officers confront armed and resisting suspects the more likely they are to escalate their own use of force and that chance is far higher in black communities. As we will see blacks are actually shot less by the police than their crime weights would predict, and whites are shot more. The percentage of white and Hispanic homicide victims who were killed by a cop is three times higher than the percentage of black homicide victims who were killed by a cop. So that 25 or so share of fatal police shootings each year comprised of black victims when measured against a crime benchmark does not support the Black Lives Matter narrative what about the individual case? Mr. Floyd’s death was immediately portrayed as what is known in literary theory as a synecdoche — a part that stands in for a whole, in this case, the whole of anti-black police violence. But if we conclude from that one case, however shocking, that the police are biased against black men, we could just as easily conclude from other individual cases that the police are biased against white men.

Take the death of Tony Timpa, which adumbrated the death of Mr. Floyd. In 2016, the 32-year-old schizophrenic called 9-1-1 in Dallas to report that he was off his medication, frightened, and needed help. Three Dallas police officers responded and kept Timpa face down on the ground for 13 minutes with the knee to his back all the while joking about Timpa’s mental illness. Timpa was handcuffed and had not resisted or threatened the officers. He pleaded for help more than thirty times exclaiming that the cops were killing him. Eventually, Timpa stopped moving or making any sound as the officers continued their wisecracks. After Timpa was loaded into an ambulance an officer said, “I hope I didn’t kill him.” Timpa was already dead from homicide caused by physical restraint and cocaine. Very few Americans outside of Timpa’s family know his name. His death did not make international news or spur widespread riots. Because Timpa was white, his death did not fit the Black Lives Matter narrative and thus was of no interest to the media.

That same year a cop in Mesa, Arizona unleashed a barrage of gunfire from his AR-15 rifle at a 26-year-old man in a motel who had been reported as having a gun. The victim was down on his hands and knees in the corridor outside his motel room trying to comply with the conflicting demands that the sergeant was screaming at him and begging “please don’t shoot me.” Like Timpa the victim, Daniel Shaver, was white.

In 2015, the year that the Black Lives Matter movement became a national phenomenon, a 50-year-old white man in Tuscaloosa involved in a domestic violence incident ran at the officer with a spoon and was fatally shot.

A white 25-year-old male in Des Moines led the police on a car chase and walked quickly towards the officer when he got out of the car and was fatally shot.

A white 21-year-old male in Akron escaped from a grocery store robbery on a bike and didn’t take his hand out of his waistband when commanded to do so and was fatally shot.

None of these victims was armed. No one knows these men’s names either because they don’t help the narrative. Had any of these victims been black however there is a good chance that they too would have become international cause célèbre. The widespread perception that questionable police shootings occur exclusively or almost exclusively against black males is a function of selective coverage.

Let’s look more closely at unarmed victims of fatal police shootings. According to the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, there were nine unarmed black victims of fatal police shootings in 2019 and 19 unarmed white victims of fatal police shootings. The Washington Post defines unarmed generously to include suspects beating an officer with his own gun or fleeing a car stop with a loaded semi-automatic pistol in their car. Those nine allegedly unarmed black victims of fatal police shootings make up 0.1 percent of all black homicide victims assuming that the 2019 black homicide count resembles that of 2018 when 7,400 blacks were killed more than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined. Point one percent is not a large percentage, to say the least.

After I publicized the 2019 tally of unarmed black victims in early June, the Washington Post went back into its database to recategorize as unarmed as many armed black victims of fatal police shootings as it possibly could. No new information spurred this reclassification the database had been closed for six months. Despite its best efforts, the Post came up with only six more black victims previously deemed armed, now miraculously disarmed, to bring the total of unarmed black police victims in 2019 up to 15. That 15 represents 0.2 of all black homicide victims, still a drop in the bucket. So individual cases including unarmed cases do not support the Black Lives Matter narrative. The claim that the death of George Floyd was the result of racism rather than bad tactics and a generalized callousness is pure supposition with no supporting evidence.

What do academic studies say about the question of systemic police bias? Well, I could cite a 2019 paper from the prestigious proceedings of the national academy of sciences for the proposition that there is no racial disparity in police shootings once violent crime is taken into account. I will not do so, however. The authors retracted that study earlier this month because I had cited it verbatim in congressional testimony and in several articles. Are you seeing a pattern here? The authors, a professor of Michigan State University and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, had come under enormous pressure from the criminology profession to disavow their study thanks to its entry into public consciousness on the wrong side of policing and racism question. I received a personal email from the authors asking me to cease and desist citing it even though the researchers stand by the paper’s findings and methodology. I will honor their request which is more courtesy than they have shown me having attributed to me a position that I’ve never taken to justify their retraction. At the end of the call today there will be an auction for the cause or study that you would like to cancel and I will promise to cite it in an article. Candidates may include but are not limited to attacks on cis heteronormativity The New York Times 1619 project or op-eds calling for the removal of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.

In any case, I am not particularly handicapped by the ban on the 2019 PNAS article as it turns out the authors forgot to retract another article of theirs from 2018 which reaches the identical conclusion that violent crime — not race — determines police shootings. That 2018 study analyzed two years of fatal police shootings from 2015 and 2016. About a thousand and fifty whites and five hundred blacks were killed by the police in those two years. Calculated against population ratios blacks were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. You will come across this 2.5 figure often in the mainstream media as proof of police racism. But remember our rule avoid population benchmarks when analyzing police activity crime is the proper benchmark as the authors of the 2018 and now retracted 2019 studies well understand. When you compare fatal police shootings to homicide reports and arrests the likelihood of being shot in the author’s words quote flips completely. Whites are about three times more likely to be fatally shot than blacks once their homicide rates are taken into account. There is also no evidence of bias in fatal police shootings when benchmarked against overall violent crime rates.

Other studies have reached the same conclusion. Harvard economist Roland Fryer has found no racial discrimination in police shootings. Officers in ten large cities and counties were more likely to shoot a suspect without first being attacked if the suspect was white than if the suspect was black. An analysis by the Center for Policing Equity also concluded that whites were disadvantaged compared to blacks when it comes to lethal force. An economist at Maryland’s Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation concluded that if blacks are killed by police officers at a rate higher than their population numbers it’s because of black’s higher rate of arrest, not their skin color. Again a question of the benchmark.

So a robust body of empirical work disproves the racism charge. What about the counter-evidence? What little there is concerns non-lethal police force. That same Harvard economist Roland Fryer analyzed the forms that New York police officers fill out after stopping a suspect. Friar found that blacks were 21 percent more likely than whites to have an officer use non-lethal force on them such as an officer placing his hands on a suspect or drawing his weapon without using it. But Fryer’s study made some questionable assumptions he categorized suspects as quote perfectly compliant with an officer’s instructions for example based only on the fact that the officer had not checked off any boxes on the stop form regarding suspect behavior. The absence of a checkmark is not the same thing as an affirmative judgment of perfect compliance as friar himself acknowledged in an email to me.

Other studies suggest that blacks resist officer orders at a rate higher than whites, which would produce any disparities regarding officer use of non-lethal force. A 2005 paper by criminologists at the California State University randomly sampled 400 police reports from a southern California department that includes 200 cases where the suspect resisted and 200 where the suspect complied. It found that resistance was more likely in high crime areas and is the inevitable corollary of this fact that black suspects were more likely to resist arrest than white suspects. In fact race was one of the most significant predictors of resistance with black suspects being four times as likely to resist than whites.

This finding accords with studies from 1995 and 2001 that officers who come into contact with non-white suspects are assaulted at a higher rate and that most assaults on officers occur by suspects with criminal histories given the lack of racial disparities in police shootings. Those who argue that officers use non-lethal force disproportionately against blacks have the burden of showing that any disparities in non-lethal force are not the product of suspect resistance proponents of the bias thesis have not met that burden. With the current tidal wave of hatred crashing down upon the police further delegitimating their authority suspect resistance will go up. That resistance will increase the chance of officer use of force which if videotaped and stripped of the civilian behavior that preceded it, will trigger new waves of civil violence.

Let’s briefly review car stops another enduring topic in the case against cops. Studies claiming bias and traffic stops, as usual, use the wrong benchmark population. The relevant benchmark is the rate at which different groups break traffic and equipment laws. There was a short period in the early 2000s when a criminologist could still study such matters and keep his job, but that window quickly closed. Before it did, New Jersey and North Carolina speeding studies showed that blacks speed more — on the New Jersey turnpike, for example — at twice the rate of whites, a disparity that increases over 90 miles an hour. Any black cop will tell you that if he stops a black driver the first thing out of the driver’s mouth is “you only stop me because I’m black.” The cop will respond “no, I stopped you because you ran that red light,” or were driving 25 miles over the speed limit. I cannot comment on Senator Tim Scott’s much-circulated claims that he has been groundlessly stopped while driving. To do so I would need to know the facts about each stop we can stipulate, however, that law-abiding black men are more likely than law-abiding white men to be stopped and questioned at some point in their lives because they meet a suspect description. That higher chance of being stopped is a result of the fact that one-third of all black men have been convicted of a felony. With that larger proportion of criminal offenders in the broader population, the chances are higher that an innocent black male will share some characteristic make of car, say, or physical traits with a suspect who is being sought by the police. That is a crime tax paid uniquely and tragically by law-abiding blacks. The solution to it is not to demonize the police, it is to lower black crime rates.

The charge that blacks are at daily risk from white supremacy extends beyond civilian interactions to civilian-on-civilian interactions. As LeBron James has tweeted, “we’re literally hunted every day every time we step outside the comfort of our homes.” This too is a sentiment at odds with the data. In the universe of all interracial violence between blacks and whites, blacks commit 85.5 percent of that interracial violence; whites less than 15 percent. These numbers exclude homicide since they are based on victim self-reports, but adding homicide would not change the proportions. This black-on-white violence manifests itself in flash mobs whereby youth rampage through downtown business districts assaulting passers-by and looting stores, in wilding in the knockout game, and in the usual brutal armed robberies. Those Minnesotans with memories that have not been yet euthanized by the PC police may recall two such attacks in Minneapolis in august 2019. In one, about a dozen people on the Target Field Plaza beat and kicked a man while ripping off his pants and shoes and stealing the contents of his pockets. They then jumped on the victim like a trampoline, hit him with planting pots, and ran him over with a bike. In the second incident, a man using his cell phone outside a downtown bar was kicked and punched by a group of youths until he was unconscious. The mob then stripped him of iPhone, wallet, keys, and cash. As of last September, Mayor Jacob Frey was calling for more police officers to try to quell a 50 percent jump in such vicious robberies in downtown Minneapolis. That was then and now is now, of course, and today Mayor Frey has joined the movement to replace police officers with social workers.

Then there are the gratuitous assaults. In New York City this summer even before the riots a 92-year-old woman was slammed into a fire hydrant in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park hitting her head, a 78-year-old woman was punched in the head in Brooklyn, and an 80-year-old man was knocked to the ground, dragged, and robbed in the Bronx. If any of these victims have been black and their assailants white these too would have been international scandals given non-stop coverage by the world’s press as proof of America’s savage white supremacy.

But just as we turn our eyes away from black-on-black crime, we are just as adamant about looking the other way when it comes to black-on-white crime. The press routinely omits the race of unapprehended crime suspects in its news coverage, a practice at odds with the public good, and has started foregoing mug shots of arrestees since such descriptions and photos are said to give the public a mistaken impression of who commits most street crimes. Actually, mug shots and suspect descriptions give an accurate sense of urban violence. This squeamishness about even acknowledging the reality of black crime is not consistent with an alleged regime of white supremacy.

The narrative about police-civilian violence is also the reverse of the truth. Black males make up about 40 percent of all cop-killers though they are six percent of the population. A police officer is anywhere from 15 to 30 times more likely depending on the year to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer. Expect such attacks to rise as the political establishment and the media fuel anti-cop hatred further.

Meanwhile, there is hardly a single aspect of the criminal justice system that is not being undone to avoid disparate impact on blacks. Felonies are being reclassified as misdemeanors to lessen the number of blacks sent to prison. Prosecutors are declining to prosecute low-level offenses like public drinking, disorderly conduct, graffiti, and turnstile jumping. Bail is being eliminated. Gang databases are being purged. Undercover police units that get illegal guns off the street are being disbanded. Because computers are allegedly as racist as people, valuable crime-fighting tools like facial recognition technology and analytical crime software are being mothballed. Universities and school districts are severing their ties with pariah police departments. The chancellor of the University of California Los Angeles apologized profusely for allowing the Los Angeles police department to use of a university parking lot for a staging area during the local George Floyd riots. Such a practice threatens the school’s marginalized voices, the chancellor said, and would not be repeated. Officers are demoralized and despairing. In no other profession are you condemned as a racist by the country’s elites from the day you step on the job a judgment that you cannot clear yourself of. Retirements are up nearly 75 percent in the New York police department since the George Floyd riots in Minneapolis. Shell-shocked officers are filing for disability at record rates. New York mayor Bill de Blasio recently canceled two future police academy classes as part of New York city’s defunding movement. He needn’t have bothered. Those may be the last police classes the city can muster. Officers on the job are telling potential recruits to avoid it at all costs.

And now with shameless hypocrisy, the anti-cop brigades are blaming the police for pulling back from precisely the types of enforcement that they so roundly condemn as racist. The Brooklyn borough president and a city council member groused to The New York Times recently that the police had not responded to complaints about illegal dice games, loud music, and other public order infractions. Had the police taken action, of course, they would have risked more charges of racism. But people who live with street disorder understand that it is the breeding ground of violent crime. It is out of those rowdy gatherings of hundreds of youth on street corners that shootings often emerge. The law-abiding residents of high crime communities have been the initial victims in this growing wave of lawlessness. These are the people whom the press never seems to talk to. People like an elderly cancer amputee in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx who told me, “please, Jesus, send more police.” The only time she felt safe to go down to her building’s lobby was when officers were there because it was otherwise colonized by trespassing youth selling drugs and smoking weed. As long as you see the police, she said, everything’s a-okay. You could come down and get your mail and talk to decent people. These are the people who, like this vulnerable senior citizen, invariably beg for more police protection, and can’t understand why the criminal justice system can’t keep the dealers off the streets and locked away. These good bourgeois citizens are of no interest to the activist press. The only people who listen to their pleas are the police.

Nor do the black toddlers who’ve been gunned down in their bedrooms, front yards, and parents’ cars over the last month carry any import to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since their assailants are of the wrong race and do not wear a badge. In Chicago, as of June 24th, 23 children under the age of 12 have been shot four of them fatally. Overall, 2,243 people have been shot in Chicago as of July 25th one person every two hours and 14 minutes. 395 of those shooting victims died. The Chicago police had shot seven people three fatally as of July 25th, virtually all armed and dangerous. That police toll represents 0.3 percent of all Chicago shooting victims. None of the children who have been shot this year in Chicago or elsewhere have been shot by a cop. The only thing that will slow this false narrative about police racism is if white children start to be gunned down in drive-by shootings. The allegedly anti-racist press ignores young black victims but goes into crisis mode if white children are shot as the reaction to those rare school shootings show. Cumulatively there are several Newton, Connecticuts, every year in the black community. Only the police pay consistent attention.

It is not just lives at stake. This attack on law enforcement undermines our justice system and fundamental rights. If it continues we could descend into civil war. It is essential therefore to counter the lies about the police with the truth and we must hope that reason still has a place in public discourse.

Thank you for your attention and thank you to the Center of the American Experiment for having me on today.