From reading Twitter, you could get the impression that American Law Enforcement are routinely using excessive force against mainly black suspects. In the past few years anything even resembling Excessive Force has gotten national attention. Here I will look at the facts regarding non lethal use of force by American Law Enforcement.
A Look Back in History
Two decades of data show police interactions with Americans of all races decreasing in number and improving in quality.When Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, legislators mandated that the attorney general begin studying and reporting on excessive use of force by police. Soon after, the Bureau of Justice Statistics developed a series of recurring studies that measured everything from police behavior in specific situations, like traffic stops, to incidents in which police use force. Much of the data was based not on reports by local police departments, but on direct surveys of citizens, providing some 20 years of information on how the police interact with American citizens, and how those citizens see the police.
Since the Ferguson incident involving Michael Brown and officer Darren Wilson, the New York Times has published stories about communities where minorities get stopped more frequently than whites, implying racial discrimination. But these stories ignore Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that crime victims disproportionately identify minorities as perpetrators of crime, too. Senator Rand Paul has even used Ferguson to launch an attack on the war on drugs, saying that it puts the police in a difficult situation in dealing with the public — though drugs had little to do with the confrontation between Brown and Wilson (except as they may have influenced Brown’s aggressive behavior).
Despite such pronouncements, two decades of data on police interactions with the public don’t support the idea that something extraordinary is afoot, that the police are becoming “militarized” as President Obama has suggested, or that distrust between police and local communities has produced an enormous spike in conflicts. By contrast, the data show that significant crime declines have been accompanied by a leveling off and then a reduction in confrontations with the police, as reported by Americans of all races.
After the 1994 legislation passed, Justice Department researchers began exploring ways to study the issues as Congress had mandated. In 1996, they produced a preliminary report on police/citizen interactions that broadly estimated that some 45 million Americans had some type of contact with law enforcement during the preceding year. Of those 45 million, the study found, slightly more than half a million reported that the police had used force against them. This initial study, regarded as experimental, wasn’t detailed enough to say much more and was subject to large margins of error, but it led to a series of more comprehensive and in-depth reports, produced from 1999 through 2011.
What’s striking in the progression of these later studies is a steady decrease in the number of people having interactions with the police — from about 45 million in 2002 to 40 million in 2011 — or from about 21 percent of the 16-and-older population to about 17 percent. One clear reason for the decline has been the corresponding drop in crime: the number of people reporting crimes or other problems to the police fell by about 3.6 million from a peak in 2002. More important, perhaps, was that reports of use of force by police also fell, from 664,000 in 2002 to 574,000 in a 2010 report. Those declines occurred across all races. The number of African-Americans reporting that police used force against them fell from 173,000 to 130,000. Among whites, the number has dropped from a peak of 374,000 to 347,000.
Since 1999, Justice Department studies have also measured how police and citizens interact during more mundane encounters, like traffic stops — vastly expanding the data about how citizens who otherwise don’t have cause to deal with the police might see their performance. In the most recent survey, in 2011, 88.2 percent of those stopped by the police said they thought officers acted properly. There were few significant distinctions by race. Nearly 83 percent of African-Americans judged police behavior to be proper, for instance. The study also asked citizens whether they thought the police had stopped them for a “legitimate” reason — and here the data on race is particularly interesting.
Some 80 percent of all drivers viewed their stops as legitimate, compared with 68 percent of African-Americans. But the study also asked drivers to report the race of the officers who stopped them, and African-Americans were just as likely to say that stops initiated by white officers were legitimate as those initiated by black officers. Similarly, white drivers saw no difference in how they were treated by white officers or black officers on this question.
Since 1994, Washington has produced other legislation meant to monitor how local law enforcement behaves. In 2000, for instance, Congress passed the Death in Custody Act, which mandated that the Justice Department collect data on deaths in local and state prisons, including data by race. These data show no startling trends that might raise flags about how those arrested and incarcerated locally get treated. Average mortality in local prisons measured per 100,000 prisoners has decreased from 151 in 2000 to 128 in 2012. Among African-Americans, average mortality has dropped from 127 per 100,000 to 109.
These data are particularly instructive in the context of another series of Justice Department surveys, which ask Americans whether they have been victimized by crime. Those who say yes are then asked to identify the race of their attacker. In a 2008 survey, 58 percent of violent crime victims of identified the perpetrators as white, and 23 percent as black. That compares with a national population 74 percent white and 12 percent black. (After 2008, questions about the race of offenders disappear from the victimization data on the FBI’s website.) Police frequently point to this survey and others like it to explain that stop rates and arrest rates are higher for minorities because crime rates are higher in minority areas. Victims disproportionately identify perpetrators as minority.
Still, surveys like the victimization report haven’t stopped some activists from advocating a form of law enforcement that expects police stops and arrests to mirror the population at large, rather than to reflect a police response to reports of crime. In the aftermath of Ferguson, Attorney General Eric Holder said that he intended to wipe out racial profiling. But as a 1999 Justice Department study on traffic enforcement made clear, racial differences alone in stops or arrests by police “may not signal racial profiling.” The study went on to clarify that “to form evidence of racial profiling,” the data would also have to show that “Blacks and/or Hispanics were no more likely than whites to violate traffic laws,” but were still targeted more frequently than whites. That distinction, which puts stops and arrests within the context of violations committed by a group, has been lost in much of today’s media discussion on policing.
No, Excessive Force is not an Epidemic
“Police brutality” is an all-purpose piece of rhetoric that, as such, can mean anything and everything and, thus, nothing at all. When anti-police misologists a “misologist” was the word that the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant used when referring to an enemy of reason sound off about “police brutality,” they are referring to the police’s unjustified use of force.
All but anarchists concede that police are authorized to use force when necessary and when it’s proportionate to the situation in question. When, however, the force deployed is unnecessary and/or excessive, then the force is unjustified. This, the unnecessary and/or excessive use of force is “police brutality.”
So, is this a growing national phenomenon, an epidemic?Not even close. According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), in 1999, of 44 million people who had face-to-face interactions with police officers, less than one-half of one percent was “threatened with or actually experienced force.” Notice, the assertion here isn’t that less than one-half of one percent — it bears repeating: one-half of one percent was subjected to the use of unjustified force; the claim is that of 44 million, this minuscule fraction of people were either threatened with — threatened with or subjected to the use of force per se. What this in turn means is that the number of people who were “brutalized” by police is even smaller than “less than one-half of one percent.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), of a national population estimate of roughly 240, 000,000 comprised of people of 16 years of age or older, of those who dealt with the police in some capacity in 2002, 2005, and 2008, 1.5%, 1.6 percent, and 1.4 percent, respectively, were either threatened with or subjected to force by the police. In 2008, 22 percent of those falling into the latter group admitted that they “argued with, cursed at, insulted, or verbally threatened the police.” Twelve percent reported that they were “disobeying” and/or “interfering” with police.
Of the 84 percent of people who felt that the threat or use of police use force was “improper,” only 14 percent filed a complaint. To further underscore just what a whopper of a lie is the notion that “police brutality” is a nationwide epidemic, consider this: Among those included in the class of people who have had to deal with police are those who have called on the police for assistance. And among those who have done so, about 85 percent claimed to have been “satisfied with the police response.” Moreover — shocker of shockers! — Hispanics (86 percent) and blacks (85 percent) were slightly more satisfied than were whites (83 percent). Finally, about 90 percent of people who requested police assistance said that they would do so again.
Police are overwhelmingly nonviolent — not that you’d know it.
Left-wing groups such as Think Progress love to link stories of any Police of Force with other recent instances of police force used against black suspects. The implication, of course, is that this is a common occurrence, and systemic. That assumption, however, is fundamentally at odds with data on police use of force (UOF),which indicate that any Police Use of Force is a rare occurrence, on the whole.
A recent study reveals that more than 99 percent of arrests by police are made without the use of physical force. Conducted by a team of doctors and a criminologist, the study analyzed more than 1 million service calls to three midsize police departments in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arizona. Those calls resulted in 114,064 criminal arrests. In making those arrests, police used force just .78 percent of the time, and when they did, they apparently exercised restraint: “among 914 suspects, 898 (98 percent) sustained no or mild injury after police UOF.”
The study received little attention, this lack of coverage is frustrating in a media landscape that regularly devotes front pages and opening monologues to graphic cases of police force, against racial minorities in particular. In addition to this recent study, the NYPD, which publishes annual reports on its own use of force, reported in 2016 that its officers did so in just “1.3 percent of 314,870 arrests, the lowest percentage ever recorded.” In 2015, the LAPD reported that its officers used force in 0.13 percent of 1.5 million public contacts.
Despite the slim chances of being subjected to police violence, many Americans continue to harbor fear of the police, substantially attributable to near-constant coverage of isolated incidents. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a story by the Associated Press that exemplified slanted media reporting on police use of force. “When black people consider calling the police,” the Times reported, “there is the additional consideration of whether calling for help could also bring harm. A study published in the American Sociological Review in 2016 showed that high-profile cases of police violence could lead to black residents being less likely to report crimes.”
Debunking the idea of Racial Gaps in Police use of Force
The largely undisputed narrative about cops and black men goes like this: black males are victimized daily all over America by police harassment and brutality, even when innocent, and there is an epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men. Even high-profile black celebrities often claim to be afraid of the police because the same thing might happen to them. Police brutality, or at least the possibility that one might become a victim of such violence, is supposed to be part of the experience of a typical black man in the U.S. Events such as the death of Brown in Ferguson are presented as proof that black men are never safe from the police.
This narrative is false. In reality, a randomly selected black man is overwhelmingly unlikely to be victim of police violence — and though white men experience such violence even less often, the disparity is consistent with the racial gap in violent crime. The media’s acceptance of the false narrative poisons the relations between law enforcement and black communities throughout the country and results in violent protests that destroy property and sometimes even claim lives. Perhaps even more importantly, the narrative distracts from far more serious problems that black Americans face.
One might retort that, while it may be rare for a black man to be killed by the police, black men are still constantly stopped and routinely brutalized by the police, even if they don’t die from it. However, even this weaker claim is false. It just isn’t true that black men are kicked, punched, etc., on a regular basis by the police.
In order to show that, I’m going to use data from the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), which, as its name suggests, provides detailed information about contacts between the police and the public. It’s conducted on a regular basis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and is based on a nationally representative sample of more than 70,000 U.S. residents age 16 or older. Respondents are asked whether they had a contact with the police during the past 12 months; if they say they did, they answer a battery of questions about the nature of their last contact, including any use of force. Since the respondents also provide their age, race, gender, etc., we can use this survey to calculate the prevalence of police violence for various demographic groups. They are consistent with a 2015 report compiled by the BJS itself to the extent the two overlap.
First, despite what the narrative claims, it’s not true that black men are constantly stopped by the police for no reason. Indeed, black men are less likely than white men to have contact with the police in any given year, though this includes situations where the respondent called the cops himself: 17.5 percent versus 20.7 percent. Similarly, a black man has on average only 0.32 contacts with the police in any given year, compared with 0.35 contacts for a white man. It’s true that black men are overrepresented among people who have many contacts with the police, but not by much. Only 1.5 percent of black men have more than three contacts with the police in any given year, whereas 1.2 percent of white men do.
If we look at how often the police use physical force against men of different races, we find that there is indeed a racial disparity, but that this experience is rare across the board. Only 0.6 percent of black men experience physical force by the police in any given year, while approximately 0.2 percent of white men do. To be fair, these are probably slight undercounts, because the survey does not allow us to identify people who did not experience physical force during their most recent contact but did experience such force during a previous contact in the same year.
Further, physical force as defined by the PPCS includes relatively mild forms of violence such as pushing and grabbing. Actual injuries by the police are so rare that one cannot estimate them very precisely even in a survey as big as the PPCS, but the available data suggest that only 0.08 percent of black men are injured by the police each year, approximately the same rate as for white men. A black man is about 44 times as likely to suffer a traffic-related injury, according to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Moreover, keep in mind that these tallies of police violence include violence that is legally justified.
Now, it’s true that there are significant differences in the rates at which men of different races experience police violence — 0.6 percent is triple 0.2 percent. However, although people often equate racial disparities with bias, this inference is fallacious, as can be seen through an analogy with gender: Men are vastly more likely to experience police violence than women are, but while bias may explain part of this disparity, nobody doubts that most of it has to do with the fact that men are on average far more violent than women. Similarly, if black men commit violent crimes at much higher rates than white men, that might have a lot to do with the disparity in the use of force by the police.
This is evident in the National Crime Victimization Survey, another survey of the public conducted by the BJS. Interviewers ask respondents if they have been the victim of a crime in the past 12 months; if they have, respondents provide information about the nature of the incidents, including the race and ethnicity of the offenders. NCVS data from 2015, the most recent year available, suggest that black men are three times as likely to commit violent crimes as white men. To the extent that cops are more likely to use force against people who commit violent crimes, which they surely are, this could easily explain the disparities we have observed in the rates at which the police use force.
None of this precludes the possibility of instances of racism among individual law-enforcement personnel. But taken as a whole, Police-Public Contact Survey data suggest that no racial group is unjustifiably targeted by law enforcement as a national matter and that black Americans by and large find little objectionable about their encounters with white police officers. There are, to be sure, isolated incidents of police malpractice. But whatever happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, and the few other cases cited by protesters, according to this collection of data, the events seem to have been statistical anomalies, not indicators of any pattern.
Is It True Police are Never Held Accountable?
According to a study in Police Quarterly, the period from January 1, 2005 to December 31, 2007 saw an average of 703 crimes by police per year. 113 of these involved firearms violations. So how law-abiding are police? With about 570,000 full-time police officers in the US at that time, that translates into about 124 crimes by police per hundred thousand officers. For the US population as a whole over those years, the crime rate was 31 times higher — 3,813 per hundred thousand people. Perhaps police crimes are under-reported due to leniency from fellow officers, but the gap between police and the general citizenry is so vast that this couldn’t account for more than a small fraction of the difference.
Another study funded by the National Institute of Justice has information on the number of officers arrested for crimes during the period from 2005 through 2011. To look the data that overlaps part of the previous study shows 891 arrests in 2006 and 964 in 2007, an average of 927.5 per year. At that rate, that implies about 75.8% of police who are arrested get convicted.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser also claims that from 2010 to 2016 almost 16% of police officers have been arrested or prosecuted. Far from the idea that Officers are above the law. Police Officers get arrested and prosecuted as well as convicted just like anybody else. However Police Crime is extremely rare.
If you are a conservative or libertarian who believes in civil liberties, what about the civil liberties of police officers who were defamed, fired and forced to go into hiding based on baseless lies?If you believe in civil liberties, you should reject lowering the standard of proof for civil rights cases, just as you do for every other type of crime.If you believe in civil liberties, you should stand up and fight against using discredited cases and a manufactured crisis to mount fishing expeditions against thousands of innocent people.
National statistics and trends, of course, don’t obviate the need to investigate individual acts of force by the police, especially when they result in the death of a citizen. Clearly, even more precise, improved statistics are needed. We don’t have good national data on how often police officers discharge their weapons, for example, so we don’t know how that changes over time.
Numbers aside, just some rudimentary common sense, a rare commodity nowadays, and practically nonexistent among the police-hating ideologues , should determine that in this Age of the Camera, a time in which everyone and their mother is armed with surveillance apparatus, the police have no real option but to be better behaved than ever before.
Of course, none of this is to deny that there are bad cops. Genuinely abusive police officers, like those who abuse their power and authority anywhere, deserve to be crucified. But there is zero justification for abstracting from these relatively few instances a rule encompassing police officers generally. This is also not to say that Police Brutality didn’t play a large role in America’s past. The worry in 1965 wasn’t ambiguous encounters or tragic accidents. It was beatings, or worse. It was whips and forced march by cattle prod. It was the violence of police who were the oppressive instruments of a lawless authority. But thankfully, were not living in 1965
It’s certainly true that police, who can and do exercise significant power over civilians, should be held accountable when they unlawfully use force, but the media play an important role in that process. Instances of police violence are too often reported with an assumption that the violence was unmeasured, avoidable, and often racist; such reporting rarely, if ever, identifies such incidents as statistical outliers unrepresentative of typical police encounters with the public — including those members of the public whom the police are trying to arrest.
Facts may be stubborn things, as John Adams said, but facts alone are not especially effective against a deeply entrenched, cultural narrative protected and promoted by forces such as the media. Smashing that false perception of an epidemic of police violence against black men will take a combination of the facts with an emotionally powerful counter-narrative — and enough minds that are receptive to truth. Exaggerating police violence has real consequences, unnecessarily increasing tension on both sides. Sober analyses of police uses of force deserve more media attention. These empirically grounded reports can help restore some of the public trust that has been lost to distorted claims of police brutality.