PragerU is a YouTube channel for expressive conservative views. They published a video titled Are The Police Racist? (with over a million views) that has this claim [at 2:48]:

a police officer is eighteen and a half times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be by a police officer

I presume it means that the rate of deaths of officers caused by black males is 18 times larger than the rate of unarmed black males deaths caused by officers.

Is this claim true?

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    Note: I deleted a lot of comments referring to earlier versions, before it was substantially edited to make it more closely match the claim. I also deleted a lot of comments that drew the same conclusion: whether the numbers are correct of not, this is a false equivalence fallacy. You should not use it to update your political beliefs. Nor should you share those beliefs here. Let's stick to the numbers, or take it to chat. – Oddthinking Nov 1 '17 at 2:11
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    @DavePhD I think sticking purely to the numbers is meaningless. These aren't random numbers chosen for no good reason. The implied claim here is that these numbers do have meaning regarding police and race (which is also why this question is on the hot network; it's not because of a bunch of statistics nerds). We obviously shouldn't answer the question "are the police racist?", but we should look at these numbers in context as icc97 has done (and we should of course also check if the numbers are actually correct as you have done). I think providing this context in the question makes sense. – tim Nov 2 '17 at 14:23
  • @Oddthinking Something struck me as off about this being a "false equivalency." It depends on what the claim it's supposed to support is. If you back up by a few seconds, you'll see the preceding statements center around black people being overwhelmingly killed by other private black citizens. The immediately following statements say that if police stopped killing blacks entirely, it would barely dent the number of black homicides. I think the point the video is trying to make is that police take personal risk to avoid killing black people, which sounds like a subclaim instead of equivalency. – jpmc26 Nov 6 '17 at 20:21

Further to DavePhD's answer (without which this answer is nothing)

All Black Males comparison to 18x

This was asked in an earlier version of the question but has since been deleted.

What would be the rate if we allowed for armed black males?

From the same WP 2015 data

                               | killed | population | total / million popn
black males (all weapon types) |    249 | 19,000,000 | 13.11
police killed by blacks (m/f)  |     21 |    628,000 | 33.44

So a police officer is approximately 2.5x more likely to be killed by a black person than kill a black male.

White unarmed males comparison to 18x

To add some further context for the original 18x statistic, this is a comparison for white males based on the original question

                              | killed | population  | total / million popn
unarmed white males           |     31 | 115,000,000 |  0.27
police killed by whites (m/f) |     28 |     628,000 | 44.59

The 28 police officers killed is based on 55% of 51 (using the same FBI data as for the 40% in the 18x calculations). It does include women, but it's the same statistic as used for the black case.

A police officer is 165x (44.59/0.27) more likely to be killed by a white person than a police officer is to kill an unarmed white man.

Original data from DavePhD's answer

If it helps for comparison, here are the numbers that make up the original 18x value:

                              | killed | population  | total / million popn
unarmed black males           |     36 |  19,000,000 |  1.89
police killed by blacks (m/f) |     21 |     628,000 | 33.44

33.44 / 1.89 = 17.65

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    I quite like the conciseness of your answer. But it would perhaps still improve it to elaborate on the underlying logic beyond the pure numbers: That the vast majority of civilians (independent of color or any other criteria) live peaceful lives far away from crime and violence. The same can not be said about police officers, which is why they are vastly more likely to be killed. The OP's statement is like saying "a square inch of a tire is x times more likely to touch a street than a square inch of street is to touch a tire". Duh. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Nov 2 '17 at 11:16
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    @PeterA.Schneider there's lots of things wrong with the statistic, but trying to improve the statistic would be a fairly big debate. So all this answer does is look at one aspect of why it's wrong. – icc97 Nov 2 '17 at 11:29
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    I agree with @PeterA.Schneider’s comment. This answer is lucid and obvious for a statistically literate person. But a statistically literate person wouldn’t have made this mistake to begin with. I fear that, in its current form, the answer is still a bit opaque to the kind of, ahem, uneducated people who propagate/consume the original claim. A metaphoric explanation might help and is in fact almost essential. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 2 '17 at 14:24
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    "So a police officer is approximately 2.5x more likely to be killed by a black male than kill a black male." The probability of a police officer killing a black male and the probability of a black person being killed by a police officer are completely different things. Also, where does the 19m unarmed black males number come from? – Acccumulation Nov 3 '17 at 2:21
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    Your first two tables aren't comparing the same thing. Only the second two tables are comparable. This answer is confusing as structured. – Kylos Nov 3 '17 at 20:20

The claim about 18 times more likely is published with more detail by Heather McDonald in the Washington Post article Academic research on police shootings and race 19 July 2016.

the per capita rate of officers being feloniously killed is 45 times higher than the rate at which unarmed black males are killed by cops. And an officer’s chance of getting killed by a black assailant is 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black getting killed by a cop


The 36 unarmed black male victims of police shootings in 2015 measured against the total black male population [nearly 19 million in mid-2014, per the Census Bureau] amounts to a per capita rate of 0.0000018 unarmed fatalities by police. By comparison, 52 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 2015 while engaged in such duties as traffic stops and warrant service, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The FBI counted nearly 628,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States in 2014. Assuming that the number of officers did not markedly increase in 2015, the per capita rate of officers being feloniously killed is 0.000082, or 45 times the rate at which unarmed black males are killed by cops. The Memorial Fund does not have data on the race of cop-killers in 2015, but applying the historical average over the last decade in which 40 percent of all cop-killers were black would yield 21 cops killed by blacks in 2015. An officer’s chance of getting killed by a black person is 0.000033, which is 18.5 times the chance of an unarmed black person getting killed by a cop. After this year’s 72 percent increase in felonious killings of police officers, these ratios will be even more lopsided.

In other words, based upon past statistics, the chances of a cop being killed by a black male is 18.5 times greater than an unarmed black male being killed by a cop.

The Washington Post article is relying on data from the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial Fund 2015 Law Enforcement Officer Fatalities Report which says:

Fifty-two officers were killed feloniously in 2015, a 15 percent decrease from 2014 when 61 officers died as a result of a criminal act. Of the 52 officers feloniously killed this year, 39 were shot and killed; 11 officers were killed in traffic-related incidents and two officers were killed in incidents unrelated to traffic or firearms. Of the 11 officers feloniously killed in traffic-related incidents, seven were struck, and four were killed in automobile crashes. One officer died as a result of a physical altercation with a suspect, and one officer was beaten to death.

The FBI gives somewhat lower numbers for officers feloniously killed. The number of officers feloniously killed in 2014 was 51 and in 2015 was 41 and in 2016 was 66 according to the FBI.

The "36 unarmed black male victims of police shootings" corresponds to this database for police shootings. This dropped to 16 in 2016 according to this database.

As far as the approximation that 40% of felonious killings of officers are by black males. According to the FBI, in the 2004-2013 time period, out of 565 such perpetrators, 243, or 43%, were black. Almost all were male. In more recent data, 2007-2016, 38% were black. The data are quite variable from year to year.

So, in conclusion, the statistic (for what, if anything, it is worth) is approximately true. The two main criticisms of the methodology are 1. using Officer's Memorial Fund statistics rather than FBI statistics, and 2. no attempt to justify equating the number of unarmed black males killed by officers to the number shot by officers. Additional black males may have been killed by other means.

(Note: when I answered the question, the phrase "are the police racist?" did not appear in the question. The statistic has no relevance to the subquestion "are the police racist?". This answer is only meant address the truth of the statistic itself, and does not attempt to address the issue of whether or not the police are racist.)

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Oddthinking Nov 1 '17 at 2:17
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    Reminder to commenters: Yes, the original claim included a false-equivalence fallacy. We know. Our focus is on whether the numbers are right, not on what a more illustrative comparison would be. – Oddthinking Nov 1 '17 at 2:20
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    It would be helpful if you clarified that it was the chance of a random member of either group being killed, not the stats for actual encounters. I know the quote does say that, but some explanatory text would be helpful. It's "deaths in the general population vs. deaths among people doing a dangerous job". Not sure on the best phrasing. – dont_shog_me_bro Nov 1 '17 at 9:28
  • "The FBI counted nearly 628,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States in 2014" What about the part-time law enforcement officers? – MT0 Nov 1 '17 at 13:32
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    It might be useful to note if the black male population is counting all age ranges, or something like 18-65. – Kimball Nov 1 '17 at 14:37

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