* Police Use of Force

Overview


For many years, there has been strong evidence indicating that police officers are not more likely to use force against nonwhite suspects than against white suspects, in circumstances that are equivalent. In 2001, for instance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) issued a major report examining the use of deadly force by police officers in the line of duty, covering the period 1976-1998. Below are some of the report’s key findings. It should be noted that the study did not distinguish between whites and Hispanics, but instead categorized all members of those two demographics as “White.” Thus, in the synopsis below, the study’s “White” category will instead be called “W&H” (Whites & Hispanics).

* Of the 8,578 civilians killed by police during those years, 98% were males. Some 55% of those males were W&H, and 41% were black.

* During the entire 1976-98 period, 56% of all suspects killed by police were W&H, and 42% were black.

* In 1978, 50% of the civilians killed by police were W&H, and 49% were black. In 1988, 59% of the civilians killed by police were W&H, and 39% were black. In 1998, 62% of the civilians killed by police were W&H, and 35% were black. For year-by-year racial breakdown of these killings, click here and go to page 7, table 4.

* From 1976-98, 84% of police officers who killed criminal suspects were W&H, and 15% were black. In most years, officers aged 25 to 29 accounted for more justifiable homicides of felons, than officers in any other age group.

* In about 65% of all justifiable homicides by police during 1976-98, the officer’s race and the suspect’s race were the same. When a W&H officer killed a suspect, that suspect was usually a W&H (63%); and when a black officer killed a suspect, that suspect was usually a black (81%).

* In 1998, the “black officer kills black felon” rate was 32 per 100,000 black officers, considerably higher than the “W&H officer kills black felon” rate of 14 per 100,000 W&H officers. That same year, the “W&H officer kills W&H felons” rate was 28 per 100,000 W&H officers, which was higher than the “black officer kills W&H felon” rate of 11 per 100,000 black officers.

With regard to other types of police use of force (i.e., besides homicide), another BJS report (from 1999) stated that in their face-to-face contacts with civilians, police either used, or threatened to use, force about 1% of the time; police use of force typically occurred at the lower end of the force spectrum, involving grabbing, pushing, or shoving; and approximately 80% of those arrests in which police used force involved weaponless tactics. Chemical agents, such as pepper spray, were the weapons most frequently used (in 1.2% of all arrests), and firearms were used least often (0.2%).

The same study found that when injuries occurred as a result of police use of force, they were usually minor. The most common injury to a suspect was a bruise or abrasion (48%). Use of force typically occurred when police were trying to make an arrest and the suspect was resisting.

Criminologists Geoffrey Alpert and Roger Dunham reported in 1999 that officers were more likely to use force against suspects of their own racial group, than against suspects from another racial group.

A 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics study which covered the period from 2003 to 2009 sheds further light on the issue of police use of force against people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Of all suspects who are known to have been killed by police during that 7-year time frame, 41.7% were white, 31.7% were black, and 20.3% were Hispanic. It is also worth noting that during the 2003-2009 period—when blacks were 31.7% of all suspects killed by an officer—blacks accounted for about 38.5% of all arrests for violent crimes, which are the types of crimes most likely to trigger potentially deadly confrontations with police. These numbers do not in any way suggest a lack of restraint by police in their dealings with black suspects. On the contrary, they strongly suggest exactly the opposite.[1]

A 2011 BJS report titled “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” shows that:

  • Between 1980 and 2008, whites and Hispanics accounted for 60% of all cases where felons were killed by police, while blacks accounted for 38% of the cases.
  • In 93% of all cases where white or Hispanic felons were killed by police during the same time period, the police officers who killed them were also white or Hispanic; the officers were black in 5% of the cases.
  • In 71% of all cases where black felons were killed by police between 1980 and 2008, the police officers who killed them were white or Hispanic; the officers were black in 29% of the cases. The relatively low percentage of shootings by black officers can be largely accounted for by the fact that there have always been many more white police officers than black police officers nationwide. For example, as of 2020, some 75% of police officers nationwide were white or Hispanic, and 13% were black. In past years going back as far as 1980, the imbalance was significantly more pronounced.

Another 2011 BJS study — titled “Arrest-Related Deaths, 2003-2009” — reports that during that time period, whites accounted for 42.1% of all suspects who lost their lives in arrest-related deaths (ARD). Blacks and Hispanics, meanwhile, accounted for 31.8% and 19.7% of such deaths, respectively. Of all ARDs during that period which were classified as homicides (where police killed suspects), 41.7% of the dead suspects were white, 31.7% were black, and 20.2% were Hispanic.

In 2015, a Justice Department study of the Philadelphia Police Department found that black officers were 67 percent more likely than their white colleagues to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black suspect, and Hispanic officers were 145 percent more likely to do the same. That same year, a study of the New York Police Department by criminology professor Greg Ridgeway found that black officers were 3.3 times more likely than their white peers to discharge their guns in the course of their work. So much for the notion of trigger-happy white cops.

In any given year, a mere 0.6 percent of black men report that physical force of any kind – including mild actions like pushing and grabbing – is used against them by the police. The corresponding figure for white men is approximately 0.2 percent. Though both figures are infinitesimally small, critics of the police are quick to complain that the figure for blacks is three times higher than the figure for whites. But as National Review points out, that disparity is fully accounted for by the fact that “black men commit violent crimes at much higher rates than white men,” as evidenced by data from the annual National Crime Victimization Survey.

Moreover, the available data indicate that a mere 0.08 percent of black men and white men alike are injured by police in any given year. This figure includes injuries sustained as a result of police actions that are legally justified, and often necessary, in order to thwart criminal behavior.

In 2017, Philippe Lemoine reported in National Review:

“According to [the prevailing] narrative, black men are constantly harassed by the police and routinely brutalized with impunity, even when they have done nothing wrong, and there is an “epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men.” […] 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, suggesting that the role of racial bias is small. […]

“Let’s start with the question of fatal violence. Last year, according to the Washington Post’s tally, just 16 unarmed black men, out of a population of more than 20 million, were killed by the police. The year before, the number was 36. These figures are likely close to the number of black men struck by lightning in a given year, considering that happens to about 300 Americans annually and black men are 7 percent of the population. And they include cases where the shooting was justified, even if the person killed was unarmed. […]

“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. […] It’s not true that black men are constantly stopped by the police for no reason.

“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. This makes it possible to measure racial differences in crime rates without relying on data from the criminal-justice system, in which racial bias could lead to higher rates of arrest and conviction for black men even if they commit violence at the same rate.

“Racial bias is unlikely to explain a very large part of the discrepancy.

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.”

In a 2018 working paper titled “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is African American, reported that police officers in Houston were nearly 24 percent less likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects. In a separate analysis of officer shootings in three Texas cities, six Florida counties, and the city of Los Angeles, Fryer found that: (a) officers were 47 percent less likely to discharge their weapon without first being attacked if the suspect was black, than if the suspect was white; (b) black and white individuals shot by police were equally likely to have been armed at the time of the shootings; (c) white officers were no more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites; (d) black officers were more likely to shoot unarmed whites than unarmed blacks; and (e) black officers were more likely than white officers to shoot unarmed whites. There is no evidence of anti-black racism in any of these findings, though some of them do seem to suggest an anti-white bias.

A 2019 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that white officers are no more likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot black civilians. “In fact,” writes Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald, the study found that “if there is a bias in police shootings after crime rates are taken into account, it is against white civilians.” Specifically, Mac Donald adds, the authors of the study compiled a database of 917 officer-involved fatal shootings in 2015 and found that 55 percent of the victims were white, 27 percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic.

Each and every year, without exception, whites who are shot and killed by police officers in the U.S. far outnumber blacks and Hispanics who meet that same fate. In 2017, for instance, 457 whites, 223 blacks, and 179 Hispanics were killed by police officers in the line of duty. In 2018, the corresponding figures were 399 whites, 209 blacks, and 148 Hispanics. And in 2019, the totals were 370 whites, 235 blacks, and 158 Hispanics. There is not a hint of racism anywhere in these figures.

When we compare black rates of violent crime, with the rate at which blacks are shot and killed by police officers, we find that blacks are represented among those shooting victims at rates significantly lower than we would normally expect. For example, in 2017, blacks were just 23.6% of all people shot dead by police, even though they were arrested for 37.5% of all violent crimes. The following year, blacks were 26.3% of those fatally shot by police, even as they were arrested for fully 37.4% of violent crimes.

According to Heather Mac Donald: “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.”

Footnotes

  1. The annual violent-crime arrest statistics for 2003-2009, broken down by race, can be found here: 200320042005200620072008, and 2009.

Additional Resources

The Truth About Police Shootings in America

Number of People Shot to Death by the Police in the United States from 2017 to 2021, by Race
By Statista.com

There Is No Epidemic of Racist Police Shootings
By Heather Mac Donald
July 31, 2019

The Truth About Police Violence and Race
By John Perazzo
June 2, 2020

Officer Characteristics and Racial Disparities in Fatal Officer-Involved Shootings
By The National Academy of Sciences
July 22, 2019

Enough of the Lying – Just Look at the Data. There’s No Epidemic of Racist Police Officers Killing Black Americans
By Law Enforcement Today
June 26, 2020

Racist Police Violence Reconsidered
By John McWhorter
June 11, 2020

Police Use Less Lethal Force in States with More Blacks
By Peter Moskos
July 17, 2017

The ‘Institutional Racism’ Canard
By Andrew C. McCarthy
June 3, 2020

The Myth of Systemic Police Racism
By Heather Mac Donald
June 2, 2020

Reconciling Results on Racial Differences in Police Shootings
By Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
2018

An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force
By Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
July 2017

State Variation in Police-Involved Shootings
By Peter Moskos
January 1, 2019

Academic Research on Police Shootings and Race
By Heather MacDonald
July 19, 2016

Do White Police Officers Unfairly Target Black Suspects?
By John R. Lott, Jr. and Carlisle E. Moody
The Crime Prevention Research Center
Revised July 21, 2017

The Rarity of Police Shootings Compared to Black Homicide Victims Is Astonishing
By Daniel Horowitz

990 People Shot Dead by Police in 2015
By The Washington Post

Fatal Force: Database of Police Killings in 2017
By The Washington Post
2017

Fatal Force: Database of Police Killings in 2016
By The Washington Post
2017

The Counted: People Killed by Police in the U.S.
By The Guardian

Number of Fatal Shootings by Police Is Nearly Identical to Last Year
By John Sullivan et al.
July 1, 2017

Police Violence Against Black Men Is Rare
By Philippe Lemoine
September 18, 2017

The Reality of Police Violence in the U.S.
By Philippe Lemoine
September 15, 2017

Police Aren’t Targeting and Killing Black Men
By Nick Selby
July 17, 2017

An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force
Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
July 2016

Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings
By Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox
July 11, 2016

Another Study Finds White Cops Don’t Target Black Suspects
By Paul Crookston
November 21, 2016

A New Crime Wave—and What to Do About It
By Heather Mac Donald
April 2021

A Year of Reckoning: Police Fatally Shoot Nearly 1,000
By The Washington Post
December 26, 2015

Police Use Of Nonfatal Force, 2002-11
By The Bureau of Justice Statistics
November 14, 2015

Black and Unarmed: Behind the Numbers
By Heather Mac Donald
February 8, 2016

CNN Fans More Hatred of Cops, in Touting Flawed Study
By Heather Mac Donald
December 21, 2016

The Numbers Are in: Black Lives Matter Is Wrong about Police
By David French
December 29, 2015

Violent Criminals, Not the Police, Pose the Real Threat to African-Americans
By Heather Mac Donald
January 2016

The Danger of the “Black Lives Matter” Movement
By Heather Mac Donald
April 2016

What the Numbers Say on Police Use of Force
By Steven Malanga
December 4, 2014

The Myths of Black Lives Matter
By Heather Mac Donald
February 11, 2016

Examining the Prevalence of Deaths from Police Use of Force
By Richard Johnson, Ph.D.
2014

The Truth About Police Violence Against Black Men
By Mark Tapson
September 22, 2017

Arrest-Related Deaths
By The Bureau Of Justice Statistics

Arrest-Related Deaths, 2003-2009
By The Bureau Of Justice Statistics
November 2011

How the Number of Justifiable Police Homicides Has Changed Since the 1990s
By Philip Bump
August 15, 2014

The Police Brutality ‘Epidemic’ Lie
By Jack Kerwick
December 31, 2014

Statistical Evidence Not Required
By Heather Mac Donald
January 16, 2017

Black Lives Matter: A Movement Built on Lies
By John Perazzo
July 12, 2016

The Numbers Add up to One Fact: Cops Are a Blessing to NYC
By John Podhoretz
December 31, 2014

“Ferguson Effect Is Real,” Police Survey Finds
By Bob Price
January 17, 2017

The Lie Behind the Lynch Mob: Remarkable Statistics on Killings by Police
By John Perazzo
August 26, 2014

Policing and Homicide, 1976-98: Justifiable Homicide by Police, Police Officers Murdered by Felons
By The Bureau of Justice Statistics
March 2001

Use of Force by Police: Overview of National and Local Data
By The Bureau Of Justice Statistics
October 1999

Police Use of Force: Collection of National Data
By The Bureau Of Justice Statistics
January 6, 1998

National Data Collection on Police Use of Force
By The Bureau Of Justice Statistics
April 1996

Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008
By Alexia Cooper and Erica L. Smith
November 2011

Understanding the Use of Force By and Against the Police in Six Jurisdictions
By Joel Garner and Christopher Maxwell
2002

Analysis of Police Use-of-Force Data
By Geoffrey Alpert and Roger Dunham
July 25, 2000

Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police
By The U.S. Justice Department
June 2003

VIDEOS

Are Police Racist?
Candace Owens interviews Heather Mac Donald
September 20, 2020

Are the Police Racist?
By Heather Mac Donald
August 22, 2016

BOOKS

Are Cops Racist?
By Heather Mac Donald
2010

The War on Cops
By Heather Mac Donald
2016

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