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Many people are currently arguing that African Americans are being killed by police disproportionately to their percentage of the US population.

An example of the claim is given at Mapping Police Violence:

Unarmed black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015

Is it true that police are more likely to kill African Americans than other races?

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    There is a claim which has been repeated in major news channels that this is true so it should be possible to find it. Moreover, there is a dataset that could address it compiled by The Washington Post. – matt_black Jul 10 '16 at 21:19
  • I manage to find one recent paper on it onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9133.12187/abstract It has numerous methodological problems (video simulation in a lab, and the results are likely due to recent media attention to shootings and ethnicity making police less eager to shoot blacks in 2016) but they also showed that 96% of officers had racial bias with 78% having moderate/strong racial bias (Harvard implicit), but no anti-white bias. washingtonpost.com/news/true-crime/wp/2016/04/27/… – EmilKarlsson Jul 10 '16 at 23:07
  • "Is it true that police are more likely to kill African Americans than other races?" or "Are African Americans victims of a disproportionate number of police killings?" are not equivalent to "Are UNARMED black people killed in disproportionate numbers," to use the quoted claim. Also the issue that is often raised is not about raw numbers, but about the perceived lack of sanction or consequence for taking an African-American life. Hence the "Black Lives Matter" moniker. – PoloHoleSet Sep 22 '16 at 14:04
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It depends on the measure

Mapping Police Violence (MPV) says:

Unarmed black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015

This is a real statistic, but it is important to understand what it says. For every million white people and every million black people, a certain number of unarmed people of that race are killed by police. That number for black people is about five times as high as the equivalent number for white people. All that said, even just looking at unarmed people, their data shows more whites (259) than blacks (244) were killed.

That source did their own research, but it is consistent with other sources. For example, the Washington Post found:

In a Post analysis looking at population-adjusted rates, unarmed black men were seven times as likely as unarmed whites to die from police gunfire.

That said, there are some weaknesses in the MPV analysis if someone wants to claim it proves racism.

While looking through the data, I found one case where a former police officer is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. While she was black and unarmed, it seems something of a stretch to call this a police killing. He certainly wasn't on-duty or acting in any kind of official capacity at the time. A double murder and suicide, a backyard brawl, and other off-duty examples also pollute the data.

In one case, the decedent had been drowning a police officer when killed. While technically unarmed, his use of water as a weapon would likely have resulted in the officer's death if he had not been stopped.

The data doesn't say whether the killer was white or black. We usually discuss these statistics when there is a case involving a white police office and a black decedent. The statistics don't tell us how common or rare that is.

The MPV source includes:

  • an innocent bystander or hostage killed
  • a pedestrian or motorist accidentally hit by a police car or passengers in a vehicle chased by police with no weapon on them
  • drivers or passengers accidentally hit by a police car

To claim racism here, you have to argue not that police are deliberately targeting black people to be killed but that they are more negligent when potential victims are black than white. That's certainly possible, but it is rarely what people are discussing.

Are there other explanations? Certainly. By the same kind of metric, crime is more likely to occur in black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods. As such, situations where an innocent bystander is killed are more likely to happen in black neighborhoods (where the criminals are).

Some measures that support explanations other than racism:

More white people than black people are killed by police. In the Washington Post data this was 494 to 258 (a ratio of just over 1.9:1).

From the Department of Justice as published by National Review:

DOJ statistics on crime by race of victim and alleged offender

  • 22.4% of violent crimes are committed by blacks.
  • 42.9% of violent crimes are committed by whites.

Going back to the Washington Post data:

  • 26% (258 of 990) police killings involved black decedents.
  • 50% (494 of 990) police killings involved white decedents.

Commentary notes that this gives a similar rate for blacks and whites when compared with their relative crime rates.

Of course, not all decedents in police killings are involved in violent crimes. The real use of that number is as a proxy for police contacts by race, which is not generally tracked.

An alternate source of data where analysis showed similar conclusions. That only studied urban areas where more people are black. And it only looked at homicides.

Black neighborhoods are poorer, may spend less money on police training and salaries, and may use police in roles where wealthier neighborhoods would call in specialists.

ProPublica has data on the race of the police officers. 78% of those killed by black officers are black. Contrast that with 46% of those killed by white officers.

Summary

More whites than blacks are killed by police, but there are more whites than blacks overall. Taken by population, blacks are more likely to be killed by police than whites, but blacks are more likely to be involved in crimes. Normalizing by ratio of police killings to ratio of violent crimes by race, blacks and whites are about equally likely to be the decedent in a police killing.

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    The stat also means very little if it is not compared to those who have an altercation with police and are not shot and killed. How many whites are not killed in police altercations vs blacks killed? – fredsbend Jul 12 '16 at 3:21
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    Racism does not require intent. – Rusty Jul 12 '16 at 4:37
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    "but blacks are more likely to be involved in crimes" Do you have any evidence to back this up? Or do you think black people are more prone to crimes? @Brythan – samayo Jul 26 '16 at 14:41
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    @samayo The FBI data bears that out. There are some issues with that data, one being white hispanics versus non-white hispanics. But that doesn't change the overall statistics on black crime, its more likely. That data also isn't very fine. – EricLeaf Apr 24 '17 at 13:16
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    @Rusty Racism is a mental thing and thus most certainly requires intent. Inadvertent biases are possible and should be fixed but they aren't racism. – Loren Pechtel Sep 25 '18 at 14:39

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