Race, Bias, and Fear of Death in Policing

Bradley Russell

With the ongoing protests surrounding the non-indictments of the officers involved in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, I have been having discussions with the students in my social justice class and others. Everyone is certainly entitled to their individual opinions of these events and the bigger picture issue of race and police violence. But, as I tell my students, it is crucial that those opinions be grounded in solid facts. With that in mind, I decided to present some hard data on these issues at the student-led campus rally/march for justice at the College of St. Rose on December 4.

Recent research and data from the FBI show that young black suspects are 21 times more likely to be killed by police officers than their white counterparts. That racial disparity must be explained. As many of my students have said, they doubt that most officers in these killing are overt racists “just out to kill a black guy”. I strongly agree. However, one does not have to be a KKK member to experience subtle forms of racial bias. This article gives an excellent overview of how these kinds of biases work and how they can contribute to the racial disparity.

In many discussions I have seen, I find it is a common theme that “Police have a very dangerous job and therefore should not be second guessed on their decisions even when innocents are killed.” That narrative is repeated over and over in our culture and likely had much to do with the lack of indictments in these cases. But, it raises the question of just how dangerous the job is. A student in my class recently asserted that it is more dangerous to be a police officer now that ever in our nation’s history and that the danger is growing steadily worse “with each passing day”. I knew something of recent trends that in fact show it to be just the opposite. So, I looked into hard data on the subject.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund, in 2013, there were 111 police deaths on the job nationwide. That is the lowest number of police deaths since 1959. Of those, most were from car accidents or other causes. Just 36 were homicides. That is the lowest number of police homicides seen in 127 years, since 1887. There are a total of 750,000 police on the job in America. If you do the math, that means that roughly 1 in 22,000 police died from violence last year. NOAA data shows that an individual’s chances of being hit by lightning are 1 in 12,000, nearly twice as high.

So, in reality we see historically low numbers of police deaths. Meanwhile, the trend of citizens being killed by police runs in just the opposite direction. Those deaths have been steadily climbing for the past two decades. There were a total of 461 Americans killed by police in the same period where 36 police died. The difference in those two numbers is stark. The latter cannot justify the former.

Looking at the basic facts, what we see simply does not justify the oft-repeated narrative that as a society, we should not second guess police killings based on the level of risk they endure on the job. They do support that notion that it is time to train our police to avoid over estimating the threat they face on a day to day basis, de-escalate situations and be far more restricted in their use of deadly force.

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