Are police shootings only a race issue?

African-American men are shot dead by American police at a much higher rate than white men.  Almost everybody knows this, or should.

In 2012, according to FBI data, African-Americans were 13 percent of the population, but 31 percent of those were shot dead by police, and 39 percent of those shot dead who weren’t attacking.   

But what about shootings of white men?  Are they all justified?  Should we be worried about them?

The World Socialist Web Site pointed out that in some areas of the USA, poor white men are at just as much risk of being killed by police, or even greater risk, as black men.

[There is a] vast and rising death toll among working-class white men in rural and small-town America, who are being killed by police at rates that approach those of black men in urban areas.

Police violence is focused overwhelmingly on men lowest on the socio-economic ladder: in rural areas outside the South, predominately white men; in the Southwest, disproportionately Hispanic men; in mid-size and major cities, disproportionately black men.

Significantly, in the rural South, where the population is racially mixed, white men and black men are killed by police at nearly identical rates. What unites these victims of police violence is not their race, but their class status (as well as, of course, their gender).

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who now teaches criminal justice at CUNY, reported that the states with the highest-rates of police killings have lower-than-average black populations, and the states with the higher percentages of black people have lower-than-average rates of police killings.

Utah has a murder and violence rate below the national average, a low poverty rate, and is 90 percent white. And yet people in Utah are almost five times as likely an in New York to be killed by a cop.  Utah has murder rate lower than NYC, 1/5 the poverty rate, far fewer cops, and Utah is 90% white.  In 2018, the rate of people shot and killed by police in Utah is multiple times higher than NYC.

I’d speculate significant variables are (in no particular order) training, fewer cops per capita, fewer cops per mile (no backup), one-person patrol, more guns, gun culture, more meth, more booze, and race (with more white states having more police-involved shootings).

The ten leading states — as in cops most shootingest states — in rank order, are New Mexico, Alaska, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, West Virginia, Montana and Idaho.  It certainly seems like if we were to focus on the states that have the highest rates of police-involved shootings (and by far), we could find some low-hanging fruit to reduce the number of said shootings.  But to do this we’d have stop thinking of police-involved shootings as primarily related to race.

Collectively the top-10 states are 4.9 percent African-American (compared to 13 percent nationally). These are the cowboy states out west. The 10 states with the highest percentage of black population (collectively 25%) have a rate of police-involved homicide (0.24) that is below the national average.

How many of these police shootings were justified?   Police officers do have a right to use deadly force to protect their own lives and a duty to protect the lives of others, 

Moskos tried to get at that by looking for correlations of police shootings with (1) violent crime and (2) killings of police.  He found none.  in other words, there seems to be no justification for the higher rates of police shootings in what Moskos calls the “cowboy states.”

Whites don’t really care about who police shoot; period; end of story.  And without the pressure over bad (or even good) police-involved shootings, cops never learn how to shoot less.  Other things being equal, cops simply shoot more people if there isn’t any push-back from (to over-generalize) blacks and liberals and media and anti-police protesters.  Call it the Al Sharpton Effect, if you will.  Basically, in many places, police organization and culture do need to be pressured into changing for the better.  

Police can be recruited, trained, and taught to less often use legally justifiable but not-needed lethal force less. The state variations in police use of lethal force are huge. Some states (and particularly jurisdictions within states) do it better than others. Instead of saying “police are the problem” we could look at the states and cities and department that are doing it better and learn.

None of this is to deny the obvious—that American police on average treat black people worse than white people.  Black Lives Matter is doing good work.  But they’d be doing better, and be more effective, if they looked into all unjustified shootings, not just those of black people.

The WSWS writer says economic class, and not race, is the main factor in police shootings.  Peter Moskos says it is the training and professionalism of the police themselves.  I say all these things matter.  Nothing is all one thing.   


State variations in police-involved shootings by Peter Moskos for Cop in the Hood.

More on state differences in cops shooting people by Peter Moskos for Cop in the Hood.

Behind the epidemic of police shootings in America: Class, poverty and race by Benjamin Meteus for the World Socialist Web Site.  Part Two and Part Three.

Black Cops Are Just As Likely As White Cops to Kill Black Suspects by Tom Jacobs for Pacific Standard.

There are huge disparities in how US police use force by German Lopez for Vox.

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2 Responses to “Are police shootings only a race issue?”

  1. David Gerould Markham Says:

    The point that the causes of killing by police in the United States is mutli-dimensional is important to take into consideration if one is to understand the system of policing in the U.S. that contributes to this phenomenon. My hypothesis is that training is the biggest factor which too often is based on a “shoot first, ask questions later” philosophy, and the lack of accountability for mistakes in behavior that have lethal consequences.

    While the comparisons made in this article of state to state and community to community based on racial and class composition is worth considering, it would be interesting to compare factors such as the type of police training, and procedures and protocols from police department to police department. I suspect the comparison of training, protocols and procedures, leadership of police departments determiing their culture, and accountability are more predictive. In other words, factors that are intrinsic to police departments and cultures are more predictive than external sociological factors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fred Says:

    The police are trained never to fire warning shots, never shoot to wound and if you shoot, shoot until the suspect stops moving. In a high-stress situation, you do what you have trained. You don’t pause to think about it.

    I think I remember seeing a study that indicated that the number of shootings by NYPD dropped significantly by simply increasing the trigger pull on their sidearms without any increase in officer injury or fatality.

    I am pretty well versed on firearms usage. A minor expert even. A light trigger pull allows for a faster shot and a more accurate first shot. I have such a pistol but it is strictly for competition shooting. (My arthritis has pretty much ruled that out.)

    The problem with that is that a lighter trigger pull also increases the chances of unintentional firing. Police officers are not machines. They are not the super cool characters of television. Under extreme and unexpected stress, one does not always draw the gun correctly which can cause accidental discharge and a dead person. Once you have it on target it can go off from a shaking hand, an improperly placed trigger finger or a bump or a loud noise.

    Hence, you often don’t hear about one shot being fired, it is usually about multiple rounds being emptied into a suspect even after they are down. Once that first round is off, it is physiologically and psychologically difficult to stop shooting. There will likely be a second and a third. The officer next to you will also likely start firing if you fire. The first shot maybe didn’t kill but the next 8 will.

    In almost every police shooting, both the union and the PD will defend the officer to the hilt. Regretable accidents are still regrettable but usually asserted to be the fault of the suspect and not the officer.

    But maybe, just maybe, if we trained officers NOT to shoot at “furtive moves” but only after clearly identifying a weapon, people like Amadou Diallo wouldn’t be dead. This notion of shooting at a movement but prior to a clear threat truly bothers me. They shouldn’t even have their sidearms out of the holster without a visible threat – but that isn’t a sign of an innately trigger happy disposition. It is how they train.

    The problem here is that we train our police to be gunfighters and even antiterrorist commandoes. We arm them that way as well. Maybe we should move to a double action pistol. (In some respects, I miss the days of the revolver.) This youtube video gives a good explanation of how different actions work.

    Simply training an officer to have a proper grip before firing and adding a bit of trigger pull could dramatically cut shootings without hurting officer safety. So would training them to shoot only when they see a weapon and not a “furtive move” or “something in the suspect’s hand”. To me it is a no-brainer but other people want a military style police. I want guardians who are armed only because of what they may run into.

    Liked by 1 person

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