Bad Statistics: High Crime Rates Don’t Justify Police Homicides

The Guardian recently published a study that found the police are on track to kill 1,100 people by the end of the year. If police homicides continue, a disproportionate number of victims will be black.

This has generated, to put it bluntly, excuses. A common rationalization I have seen is that because crime rates are higher among black Americans, we should expect police homicides to be higher as well.

This is untrue. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics and the nature of lethal force.

To begin, there is no rule that dictates we should see a relationship between a high crime rate and police homicides. This is basic; it is a causality claim. I understand that the high crime/police shooting relationship is the kind of thing that seems to make intuitive sense. We assume hey, they got shot by the cops, surely they were involved in something bad. I understand why, at a glance, many have gone there. But it is actually unfounded.

Let’s get a bit of a background: it’s important to know, first, when a police homicide is considered “justified.” This is because we need to know what variable we “should” associate with a police shooting. You can get a bit of an idea on this, but let’s clarify when a homicide is not considered justified:

  • A homicide is not justified merely because the person has a criminal conviction.
  • A homicide is not justified merely because a person is wanted for arrest by the police.

Past criminal acts – acts reported in general crime statistics – are not the variable we seek.

If you understand this, you may also begin to see why we can’t use high crime rates to explain police homicides. There is no causal relationship between the crimes we measure in crime statistics and the legal rationale for a justified use of lethal force.

(We will also see below that there is often no relationship between the kinds of violent crimes used to explain police shootings – things such as robberies and murders – and actual police shootings themselves.)

For example, if a man is wanted for murder this does not explain the use of lethal force. Unless the man poses an immediate threat, a threat that is distinct from the charge he is sought for, there is no justification for the use of lethal force. There is no consideration as to the criminal conviction history of the individual here. It does not matter how many robberies or homicides he has committed, how many drugs he has sold, or how long he has been a gang member. The only factor under consideration is the threat he poses in the moment.

The point to understand: threat – the legal rationale for the use of lethal force – is a distinct variable from “crime” as reported in crime statistics.

This means that the only variable we can consider as far as a “should” is concerned is the kind of immediate threat that qualifies as a legal justification for what cops crudely call a “good shoot.” We could say, for example, “black people are more likely to pose a physical threat to police officers justifying the use of lethal force.” But that is not what people are saying. They’re saying that a “high crime rate” explains police homicides.

In fact, we don’t really have any statistics on actual threat as justification. There is no basis to claim “black people are more likely to pose a physical threat to police officers.” We could say that “justified homicide” statistics measure threat, but they don’t do so in any meaningful way. This would be muddled by the fact that law enforcement itself determines what is justified, and that the use of lethal force is always at the discretion of individual police officers, unlike arrests, which are typically mandatory.

So what we end up doing, instead – or what some people end up doing – is to conflate a high crime rate for legal justifications for police homicides.

PoliceOne, pro-police media, reported in 2005 that 25 percent of all law enforcement shootings involve unarmed suspects. This was a forced admission; it was an attempt to debunk the same statistic found by the American Civil Liberties Union. Nonetheless, most of those homicides – homicides of unarmed people – were found to be justified.

These were not hardened criminals shooting it out with the police.

The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram – remember the state does not collect these statistics – found that approximately half of all people shot by the police are mentally ill. A similar number for 2015: a quarter of people shot by police were “in the throes of mental or emotional crisis.” Police involvement in almost all of these cases was not crime-related, but the result of a family member calling law enforcement for mental health reasons.

The narratives from the recent Guardian findings reflect this: we see repeated incidents of “justified” police homicides that do not involve people engaged in devious criminal behavior. For example, a disturbed man waving a knife or a firearm is almost certain to be shot. This is a common scenario for police homicides, but it is also completely unrelated in a causal way to the crime demographics of racial/ethnic background.

These were also not individuals engaged in the kinds of violent crime – murders or robberies – being used to explain away police shootings.

It may be the case that we see higher crime rates in a population that is also more likely to be shot by the police (black Americans). This does not mean that people are more likely to be shot by the police because of higher crime rates. This is a classic example of correlation not implying causation. We could go into why black Americans are more likely to be shot, or why black Americans are more likely to be arrested and charged for crimes even when they are less likely to commit those crimes. But it is sufficient for now to show that high crime rates do not explain police killings.

We should also consider that American police officers are more likely to use violence across the board when compared with police around the world. This is true regardless of the context: American police are more likely to use lethal force against armed and unarmed suspects. They’re more likely to use lethal force against the mentally ill, against people with white skin, and against people with black skin. American police are more likely to use lethal force against men, women and children. This has been the case for decades. We can come up with a multitude of excuses and justifications, from a high crime rate to the prevalence of firearms, but these remain mere excuses and justifications. The fact remains that the burden of police violence remains squarely on the police themselves.

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