Dear Ali Rizvi,
Is systemic racism causing American police officers to disproportionately kill black suspects?
George Floyd’s death on May 25th  angered a nation. Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum agreed what the officers did was abhorrent. In the days since, the United States has experienced widespread protests and riots. Innocent people have been killed. Businesses have been burned to the ground. And several cities, including Minneapolis, have either voted on or intend to vote on defunding their police departments. This would have been considered radical if not unthinkable just a few weeks ago, but the Overton window has since shifted and it’s becoming increasingly mainstream.
Many Americans believe what happened to George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by police officers, is anything but rare. Let’s begin by taking a look at that specific claim, which sits at the heart of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. BLM is an organization that came into existence after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida in 2013 and became prominent after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. BLM claims that racist American police officers disproportionately shoot African Americans. At the core of this narrative—and often cited by BLM proponents—is the claim in a Washington Post article from June 5th of this year:
“Studies show that black men in America are up to 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by law enforcement.”
Most Americans hear that statistic and are rightly horrified. No one can deny the racism and injustice of decades past: slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and police departments that helped enforce the above. If that sort of racism is still being enforced by American law enforcement today, then all of us, myself included, should be demanding that it immediately cease. And within this context, the dissolution of police departments, an issue far more complex than the slogan suggests, may seem to make sense.
In this letter, I’ll address and unpack the claim that systemic racism is a causal contributor to American police officers disproportionately killing black suspects. Given the importance of the topic, clarity and focus is key, as is being clear about what I am not arguing. I am not denying the injustice and racism of the past. And I’m not arguing that racism doesn’t exist now. These are universally agreed upon and are not the focus of groups like BLM. Their claim, and the claim of those in this ideological orbit, is that police departments are rife with “systemic racism,” and, as a consequence, officers disproportionately kill black men.
I was happy to hear that Ali Rizvi would be the person with whom I’m conversing. I have a great deal of respect for Ali as a thinker and writer. I also know Ali understands what constitutes evidence and what does not. In his book The Atheist Muslim, which I highly recommend, he writes:
… any scientific inquiry must start with the assumption that it could be wrong. Falsifiability—the ability of a proposition to be proven false—is a necessary component of the scientific method, which begins with a hypothesis, tests it via experiment, and either verifies or nullifies it based on the evidence. Faith, in contrast, begins with a definitive conclusion believed to be correct—such as “Jesus is the son of God” or “Muhammad is Allah’s messenger”—and then works backward, cherry picking pieces of evidence (or perceived evidence) in an attempt to support it.
Ali is correct. I’ll add that the question of whether or not systemic racism has the police disproportionately killing black Americans is also an objective, not a subjective, question. This is an empirical issue and should be adjudicated on the basis of evidence—not ideology.
For that reason, we must spend our time examining evidence. First, however, I want to be clear that the evidence is not perfect. The BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics) and FBI have tracked these statistics for decades, and often relied on the cooperation of State and local departments. Organizations like the Washington Post and Fatal Encounters also collect data, which has helped correct for some errors. Still, there will still be discrepancies. For example, the Washington Post database had the total number of unarmed black suspects in 2019 that were shot and killed by police at 9, and unarmed white suspects that were shot and killed by police at 19. Those numbers are now 15 for unarmed blacks, and 25 for unarmed whites, as more facts have emerged. In addition, the category of “unarmed suspects shot by police,” is only accounting for officer shootings while the officer is on duty. It does not account for suspects killed by officers using other means, as happened in the case of George Floyd.
That said, despite all the complexities involved data collection and analysis, reliable patterns consistently emerge year after year. There is enough evidence to draw conclusions that, as always, must remain open to revision in light of subsequent evidence. Data collection and analysis is an ongoing and imperfect process, but it is the process which rational individuals use to adjudicate competing claims and tether their ideas to reality. I know of no reasonable alternative to a sober look at the best available evidence. If Ali has one, I’m open to listening.
I’ll start with officer shootings of unarmed suspects, because that is what sparked the creation of BLM. It is important to remember that “unarmed” never means “not deadly.” There is always a gun involved—the officers. In many cases the suspect is fighting to get ahold of it. In the Ferguson case, it was claimed that Michael Brown had his hands up when officer Darren Wilson shot him, in cold blood, in the middle of the street. Upon investigation, the forensic evidence as well as half-a-dozen black witnesses confirmed officer Wilson’s account. Michael Brown tried to take officer Wilson’s gun and was charging at him when shot. We know a single anecdote isn’t evidence, so regardless of the Ferguson “Hands up don’t shoot” narrative being false, do officers disproportionately shoot unarmed black suspects?
Let’s look at the best available data:
- Every year there are roughly 375 million citizen contacts with American police officers. Some are officer initiated, such as traffic stops, others are citizen initiated, for example, calling the police after a burglary. Of those contacts, about 2% result in the use of physical force by the officer.
- According to the Washington Post database (they began keeping track of officer related shootings after Ferguson), in 2019 the police fatally shot 40 unarmed citizens. Of those 40, 15 were black and 25 were white. Of the 15 shootings involving black suspects, most were found to be actively trying to kill the officer. For example, in two cases a suspect was trying to run an officer over. In another, the suspect took and used the officer’s taser on him. In another, a female officer was being physically beaten when she fired. In two of the 15 cases the officer involved was found at fault. In both those cases the officers are currently in jail.
- To put those deaths at the hands of police in perspective, in 2018 there were 16,214 homicides in the United States. Of the cases in which the victim's race was known, 53.3% were black. Where the race of the offender was known, 54.9% were black. That comes to 7,407 black homicide victims. And the vast majority of those black victims were killed by young black men.
- In a nation of roughly 330 million people, where police have more than 370 million contacts with civilians a year, officers shot a total of 15 unarmed black suspects.
- If 2019 total homicide numbers are close to 2018, then those unarmed black victims of police shootings will represent roughly 0.1% of all African Americans murdered in 2019.
But what about cases where the black suspect had a gun, are police disproportionately killing black suspects in those cases? Again, let’s take a look at the evidence:
- In 2019 American police officers shot and killed 1,004 people, most of whom were armed. African Americans were approximately 25% of those, or 235. That percentage has remained fairly consistent since the Washington Post started tracking it in 2015—and even further back if you use the BJS or FBI data sets.
It is here that proponents of the “systemic racism has officers disproportionately shooting black suspects” narrative, begin pointing to the numbers. If African Americans make up just 13% of the total US population, why are they 25% of the suspects shot by police officers?
To understand that we have to account for rates of offending. If we don’t, we will be left with the curious conclusion that American police officers hate men, and are biased against White Americans in favor of Asian Americans. Let me explain why with two facts:
- Women make up roughly 50% of the American population. However, from 2017-2019 roughly 96% of all people shot by police were men.
- Asian Americans make up just under 6% of the total population. However, Asian Americans consistently represent 1.5% or fewer of people shot by police every year.
The confusion arises because people don’t account for rates of offending and only take a cursory look at the data. Worse, if we use post-hoc reasoning, assume that systemic sexism must be at-play, and reason backwards from there (as Ali wrote: Faith, in contrast, begins with a definitive conclusion believed to be correct—such as “Jesus is the son of God” or “Muhammad is Allah’s messenger”—and then works backward, cherry picking pieces of evidence) we get the inevitable conclusion that “cops hate men.” This is the identical reasoning process used by those who routinely assert that the disproportionate shooting of black suspects is proof of systemic racism (an idea which also has roots in Critical Race Theory). It is the method not the conclusion that we have to pay attention to.
If we want to know whether or not police officers hate men, or if they disproportionately kill black men because police officers are racist, we need to account for rates of offending. Here they are:
- Women represent roughly 50% of the total population, and roughly 10% of known homicide offenders in the United States. Yet women represent approximately 4% of those shot by police yearly.
- Asian Americans represent roughly 6% of the total population, and roughly 1.5% or less of known homicide offenders, year after year. Asian Americans represent roughly 1-2% of those shot by police yearly.
- White Americans represent roughly 76% of the total population. Between 1980-2008 white Americans made up 45.3% of known homicide offenders, and 2018 looks like a very similar percentage. White Americans consistently represent 40-50% of those shot by police every year.
- Black Americans make up about 13-14% of the total population. In 2018, black Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders. Those numbers have been consistent and have been verified by multiple, independent sources. To use just one data point, according to the Department of Justice, from 1980-2008 of the known offenders, Black Americans committed 52.5% of all homicides. They consistently represent roughly 25% of those shot by police every year.
If you think that the disproportionate rate of black Americans killed by police is indicative of systemic racism, you have to explain why the fact that 96% of people shot by police are male, when men make up just under 50% of the population, is not indicative of systemic sexism.
Of course, not everyone shot by police is a homicide suspect. But the rates of overall violent crime tend to be similar to homicide rates. For example, where the race of the offender is known, black Americans accounted for 53% of all homicides in 2018. In that same year, black Americans accounted for 60% of robberies. You will find similar numbers for assault, and other violent crime.
Again, there is some room for error and discrepancies in these numbers. To minimize error, I’m intentionally drawing data from different sources, the BJS, the FBI, the Washington Post, Fatal Encounters, peer reviewed articles, etc., in order to show how closely most track. From 1980 to 2018, while the rates of overall crime have varied a great deal, the percentage of known offenders by race has remained relatively consistent. And at this point I’d encourage everyone reading this to take a few moments and search the data sets yourself. Look through the BJS, FBI, and Washington Post sites. When you do you will discover that regardless of how you parse the numbers, black Americans, and even more specifically, black American males between the ages of 15-35, a demographic that makes up less than 4% of the total population, are responsible for about half of all the violent crimes in this country, and that has been the case for more than three decades.
Why does all this matter? If certain groups are committing more violent crimes then they will have more contact with the police and be more likely to be shot by police. There’s no reason to believe police shootings should, or even could, somehow correlate with the U.S. Census data. Believing so is a failure to reason honestly about the best available evidence.
Individuals on the other side of the argument—like proponents of BLM narratives—frequently cite issues like bias in who the police chose to pull over or arrest. There are multiple problems with this. First, if we are focusing on homicides, we end up having to posit some kind of conspiracy in order to rationalize bias in the reported murders. This way of thinking simply does not stand up to scrutiny and runs contrary to the data. Second, the rates of offending that are calculated by the BJS and FBI tend to track exceedingly well with the National Crime Victimization Survey. This survey is anonymous, fairly comprehensive, regularly occurring, and is considered highly reliable. And, it matches very closely, and corroborates with, the best available data I cited above. It’s also worth noting that in large departments located in high crime areas like Chicago, officers rarely have time to stop random suspects. They run from 911 call to 911 call, all day, every day.
Here’s the third rail that many are too fearful to mention: black on black crime. On the first weekend after George Floyd’s death, there were 92 shootings in Chicago alone, and 27 of those 92 people, have, so far, died. Almost all of them were black. That’s one weekend, in one city. As I cited above, in 2018 alone, there were 7,407 Black Americans murdered. The vast majority were killed by young black men.
Let me close my argument by restating it. More contact with police by any given demographic, due to a much higher rate of crime by that demographic, will result in higher rates of death by police. That’s it. And that fact alone should be enough to instill a deep sense of skepticism and doubt on the narrative BLM is selling.
I am not arguing that there is no racism in major police departments. I would caution everyone to remember that in most of these departments a sizeable percentage of the officers are black or Hispanic Americans, many police chiefs are black, many of the Mayors and city council members are black, and many of the Attorney Generals are black. If we take one high profile case in particular, Freddie Gray, when Mr. Gray was killed we had a black President, a black Attorney General, a black Mayor, a black Police Chief, a black Deputy Police Chief, a black State Attorney General, a black Judge, and 6 officers involved, three of whom were black. You can find comparable cases with white suspects (look up the Tony Timpa case), and yet we are asked to believe Mr. Gray’s death is a case of systemic racism.
What we saw happen to George Floyd was homicide. The officers involved should be granted due process, and, if found guilty in a court of law, prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s head no more represents the majority of the 18,000 men and women of American law enforcement than a black gangbanger represents the majority of hard working black Americans. And now more than ever, we need to remember to treat individuals as individuals, and not according to the worst group stereotypes.