Fear is a powerful motivator. It is a repressor of our better side, it is a parasite that lives within and gradually destroys us. Though fear is not rational we all have reasons to fear. Risk, defined as the possibility of damage or loss, is omnipresent. There is no such thing as a risk free environment. Rather, risk is a continuum from low to high both in terms of likelihood and consequences. Death is, of course, a most dire consequence
Today I hope to address real versus perceived risk as it relates to race and shootings by the police. (“Police shootings”, as opposed to criminals who shoot the police.)
When I mentioned my intentions to do some easy research concerning police shootings I was warned that these statistics are not easy to uncover. They are more difficult to ferret out than is defining the term “Race,” which has no scientific meaning. We are all part of the human race and the differences within a “race” are far greater than that between differing “races.” Rather than use convoluted, though far more accurate terms, I shall use race to describe the human sub-groups labeled as black, white and non-white Hispanic.
The Washington Post came to my rescue concerning the need to gather statistics. The Post reported on police shootings and garnered their information from various sources. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/) Their findings for 2015 indicated the following.
In 2015 Police Officers in the USA:
- Shot and killed 990 people
- 948 victims were male (96%)
- 42 victims were female (4%)
- 494 were white (50%)
- 258 were black (26%)
- 172 were Hispanic (17%)
- 64 were ”other” or “unknown” (7%)
As mentioned above race is a slippery term. Accessing various websites it became obvious that the racial breakdown of the US varies significantly from source to source.
The lowest percentage that I found in regards to whites was 61.6% and the high was 64%.
Blacks fell between 12 and 13.3% of the US population and Hispanic was between 16% and 18%.
Obviously, if police shootings were random events then we would find that roughly 63% of the victims were white, 13% black and 17% Hispanic. These numbers did not hold true and indicate a greater likely risk of police shootings for blacks, followed by Hispanics with whites being in the lowest risk category.
Whites, who make up 63% of the population had 50% of the victims, putting them at a reduced risk for police shooting than is indicate by strictly random factors.
Hispanics were neutral. They suffered 17% of the fatalities which corresponds with their 17% of the population.
It was blacks who truly had the eye-popping numbers. In 2015 blacks were killed by the police at a rate that was twice as high as their statistical demographic would indicate.
Though police shootings are unfortunate and high profile cases of apparently blatant disregard for citizen’s safety, law or order have made the news over the last few years I want to contrast the sad statistics listed above with other risks.
In the United States roughly 12,000 people are shot dead by someone other than themselves every year. This 12,000 number does not include suicidal nor accidental self-inflicted fatalities. Of this 12,000 990 represents about 8% of the fatalities.
While in no way wishing to reduce the horror of these facts I feel it necessary to point out that even though 990 lost lives is a horrendous thing the numbers also indicate that on average 2.7 people are killed by the police on any given day. Is that nearly three likely far too many? Of course, but in a population of over 320,000,000 the risk rate of any of us being killed by a police officer is still very low. We have a one in 118, 518, 518 chance of being shot by a police officer on any given day, a number that indicated our chance of death by cop being, statistically speaking, insignificant.
In contrast we will lose about 30,000 to falls, 3,000 to choking and about 50 to lightning strikes this year. How does this relate to the scourge of police shootings you ask? Well, it doesn’t. It relates to perception of risk.
On a recent drive home I listened as an African-American reporter described the fear he now feels when out and about. Fear of being shot by the police. He related how his parents had taught him to be respectful during any encounter with law enforcement and that even though he’d been pulled over for DWB -driving while black- several times until recently he had not feared for his life during these encounters but now he does.
Police officers shot and killed 990 victims in 2015 and a disproportionate percentage of these victims were people of color, especially black men. Reporters brought a dozen or so seemingly incomprehensible examples of police killing unarmed victims to the forefront of the country’s attention and this reporter, this man with a college education who was both part of the blessing of bringing the horror to the light of day and part of the problem by not putting the problem in proper perspective, declared himself afraid. I am not questioning his veracity. I am not questioning his feelings of fear. I am wondering how rational he feels those fears are?
Police killed an average of 19 people per week in2015. Car collisions kill about 650 in the same time period.
Bad cops have to be weeded out. Those that wantonly take the lives of others should be charged with a crime and tried. Those whose improper actions do not fall to criminal behavior but who cannot uphold the function of protecting and serving their community need to be summarily drummed out of the profession. But what do we need to do?
We need to hold ourselves to a reasonable standard as well and the first thing we should do is be informed enough to recognize what risks are at play, to what degree and what, if any, control we have over the situation.
And for the love of God, don’t let some media circus change the focus from the positive of making the cops responsible for their actions to the negative of living in fear. Because as I said earlier, fear is a powerful motivator. It is a repressor of our better side, it is a parasite that lives within and gradually destroys us. Though fear is not rational we all have reasons to fear. And when we let fear rule us then we are not ruling ourselves.