Why Police Killings Are a Thing

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A lot has been said in the past year or so about law enforcement officers killing people, with hardly a day going by without some news story on the matter.  For example, an unarmed black man was killed by officers in San Diego just yesterday.

A lot of the controversy surrounding police killings involves separation of governmental powers.  Going through a primer on the three branches of government seems unnecessary to me, but simply put: once the legislature passes laws, and the executive signs the law into effect, someone has to make sure that the laws are executed.  Criminal laws are essentially prohibitions with consequences (i.e., “thou shalt not kill” and if you do, you will go to jail for a long time, or even lose your own life).  That means that the execution of the laws requires some entity to make sure that the prohibited act either never happens in the first place, or–if the prohibited act occurs–the violator is rendered up for judgment.

Duties of Law Enforcement Entities

The entities created to execute criminal laws in Texas are called “peace officers,” created by the Texas Legislature.  Article 2.12 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure has at least 35 types of people who can be peace officers, ranging from the obvious (sheriffs and police officers) to the not-so-obvious (certain security officers).  Article 2.13 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that it is the duty of every peace officer to preserve the peace within the officer’s jurisdiction, and as a general matter, that is effected–as laid out in Art. 2.17–by arresting all offenders and taking them before the proper court for examination or trial.

Law enforcement entities, therefore, are not intended to sit in judgment of those arrested–judgment and punishment are powers reserved for the judicial branch.

Efforts to Report on Police Killings

On September 1, 2015, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 2.139 went into effect.  This statute requires a fairly detailed report to be provided to the Attorney General whenever there is an officer-involved injury or killing.  The report must contain:

  1. the date on which the incident occurred;
  2. the location where the incident occurred;
  3. the age, gender, and race or ethnicity of each peace officer involved in the incident;
  4. if known, the age, gender, and race or ethnicity of each injured or deceased person involved in the incident;
  5. whether the person was injured or died as a result of the incident;
  6. whether each injured or deceased person used, exhibited, or was carrying a deadly weapon during the incident;
  7. whether each peace officer involved in the incident was on duty during the incident;
  8. whether each peace officer involved in the incident was responding to an emergency call or a request for assistance and, if so, whether the officer responded to that call or request with one or more other peace officers; and
  9. whether the incident occurred during or as a result of:
    1. the execution of a warrant; or
    2. a hostage, barricade, or other emergency situation.

By February 1 of each year, the Attorney General must provide a report to the Governor and the Legislature containing a compilation of the total numbers of officer-involved injuries and deaths, a summary of the reports, and a copy of all reports.  The first report published by the Texas Attorney General covers only the time period of September 1, 2015 to December 31, 2015, and can be found here.

Police Killings Circumvent the Administration of Justice

This law came into effect because the natural order of the criminal justice system is circumvented when an officer kills another person. There is no chance for a judge or jury to sit in judgment and impose a sentence.  Unless a person has caused the death of another person, penalty of death is not state-sanctioned punishment. A percentage of officer-involved killings–which, thanks to 24-hour news and social media, feel more and more routine–involve situations in which the suspect is not alleged to have killed someone else.  The killing therefore creates a disruption in the appropriate administration of the criminal justice system.

Statistics regarding the number of people killed by law enforcement officers in the United States are notoriously poorly kept.  According to a ProPublica study on the topic,

The data, for instance, is terribly incomplete. Vast numbers of the country’s 17,000 police departments don’t file fatal police shooting reports at all, and many have filed reports for some years but not others. Florida departments haven’t filed reports since 1997 and New York City last reported in 2007. Information contained in the individual reports can also be flawed. Still, lots of the reporting police departments are in larger cities, and at least 1000 police departments filed a report or reports over the 33 years.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also released a report in October 2015 which estimated that arrest-related deaths (which includes homicides, suicides, and accidents) from 2003 to 2009 were underreported by about 54% or so.

Texas Police Injuries or Killings by the Numbers

Programs and laws like Art. 2.139 are intended to provided better statistical information about law enforcement officers causing injuries and death.  Looking at the February 1, 2016 data provided by the Texas Attorney General, there were 70 incidents between September 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 involving peace officer shootings involving a firearm that caused injury or death. Of those 70 incidents, 29 people died, and 41 were injured.  Four peace officers were also injured, though none were killed.  32 Caucasian individuals were injured or killed,  21 were Hispanic, 16 were African-American, and 1 was of another nationality or race.  60 incidents involved individuals reportedly carrying a deadly weapon, and 10 individuals were unarmed. Of the 10 unarmed individuals, five were Caucasian, three were Hispanic, and two were African-American.  “Only” two deaths of unarmed individuals occurred: two Caucasians.

National Police Killings by the Numbers

The reports required by Texas law are a good development, because national information is very difficult to come by.  Last year, the Washington Post launched a website that has attempted to catalog every police killing during a given year. So far, the site includes data for 2015 and year-to-date 2016.  Its findings are exceptionally interesting.

According to the Washington Post, there were 990 police killings across the United States last year, and 714 year-to-date 2016. While the zeitgeist suggests that more Black individuals are killed than White people, the Washington Post finds otherwise.

Police Killings in 2015 Year-to-Date, Compiled from Data Provided by the Washington Post
Police Killings in 2016 Year-to-Date, Compiled from Data Provided by the Washington Post

As you can see, the vast majority of police killings involve an individual who is possessing some sort of deadly weapon.  And in nearly every category, more Whites are killed than Blacks.  If that’s the case, then, what’s with all the uproar?  Why is #blacklivesmatter even a thing?

Numbers Mean Something

If absolute values were all that mattered, then, yes, the uproar surrounding police shootings of African-Americans would perhaps be overstated.  Absolute values, however, do not provide a complete picture of a complex situation.

Take a fictitious corporation, for example. Let’s call it SuperBigCo, Inc. If SuperBigCo brings in revenues of $1 billion, but its expenses incurred in bringing in that $1 billion amount to $1.0001 billion, SuperBigCo is not a profitable company.  A billion dollars in revenue sounds like a lot of money (and it is!), but the size of that number is diminished by the fact that SuperBigCo doesn’t make any profit.

In other words, absolute values matter, but so do proportions.  Take the number of women in the United States Congress, for example.  According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there are currently 104 women holding seats in the United States Congress (20 in the Senate and 84 in the House).  That amounts to 19.4% of the total 535 seats in Congress.  Considering that women make up about 51% of the United States population (according to the Kaiser Family Foundation), one would expect to see approximately 273 female members of Congress, if Congress were proportionately representative.  This example, of course, is simplistic and it can easily be said that only those who run for Congress can be elected to Congress, and if it is mostly men who run for Congress, then of course it makes a sort of sense that men are overrepresented in Congress.  Nonetheless, the points: based on population distribution, women are underrepresented in Congress.

Why #blacklivesmatter is a Thing

So how does this apply to #blacklivesmatter?  It applies because of population distribution.

As of January 1, 2016, the United States Census Bureau estimated there were 322,761,807 people in the United States.  The Census Clock does not break that number down by race or ethnicity–at least, not in any easily findable way.  The Kaiser Family Foundation, however, provides some estimates for race and ethnicity distribution.

As a whole, the KFF estimates that the United States is 61% White, 12% Black, 18% Hispanic, 6% Asian, and 1% Native America/Alaska Native.  In an egalitarian system with proportionately representative distribution, we would therefore expect to find a similar ethnic breakdown when it comes to police killings.

The problem is, there isn’t such a distribution. Let’s do the math.

Police Killings in 2015 Expressed in Percentages

Immediately we see that in 2015, Whites were underrepresented, comprising 49.90% of all police killings (remember, we would expect to see a White distribution of about 61%) while Blacks were overrepresented by a factor of 2.17:1; they comprised 26.06% of all police killings in 2015, while making up only 12% of the population.  Hispanics, at 17.37%, were slightly underrepresented, but close enough to the 18% baseline.

Where the numbers are more stark is when it comes to those unarmed individuals killed by police.  Whites made up only 34.41% of all such killings, whereas Blacks accounted for 40.86%.   In other words, Blacks are overrepresented in this category by a factor of 3.41:1.  Hispanics, again, “performed” very close to their baseline 18%.

Year-to-Date 2016 shows a few trends worth noting.  First, proportionately fewer Whites and Hispanics are being killed by police so far this year.  Second, the stand-out disparity between unarmed Whites and Blacks in 2015 (where 38 unarmed Black people were killed while 32 White people were killed) has not materialized so far this year.  And third, the percentage of Black people being killed by police has decreased slightly.

This is Why There’s Outrage

The outrage comes from the overrepresentation of African-Americans among those who are killed by police officers.  Because Hispanics and “Others” are killed by police officers at generally equivalent rates to their representation in the population as a whole–while Caucasians and African-Americans are under- and overrepresented respectively–it is hard not to argue that African-Americans are treated more unfairly.  That sort of disparate treatment, whether intentional or subliminal, creates feelings of fear and frustration.

One of the great challenges going forward is finding ways to address these statistics, provide officers with better training and rules of engagement, and do everything that can be done to drastically reduce the number of people killed by police officers.