As with many contentious topics, the issues of police brutality and racial profiling have people drawing sides. We need to be cognizant that the information we get – whether from experts, online searches, our friends, or the media – often comes with a left or right bias.
This makes it difficult to objectively evaluate the facts. Even with the best intentions, bias impacts the way we see things, even how we report facts. Studies show that people are willing to disregard any problematic facts that challenge their political ideology.
One-sided analysis doesn’t lead us to the truth. We must look at issues from multiple vantage points to truly see the whole picture.
For example, two typical arguments about the racial bias of police go as follows:
“Blacks are targeted by police because they commit more violent crimes.”
“The treatment of blacks by police is uneven and brutal due to racism.”
Which side do you choose?
Evidence supports both views. Acknowledging one doesn’t diminish the other. In fact, finding a resolution to this issue is impossible without accepting the truth in both these statements.
Violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks. According to the FBI, African Americans perpetrated almost 40 percent of violent crimes in 2013 (the most recent data available) though they are just 13 percent of the population.
What’s the best way to interpret the facts? Depends whom you ask
The hunt for objective statistics on police bias is a dizzying task. Depending on the source of information and the way it’s interpreted, it’s possible to confirm just about any premise one seeks to find.
For example, white people make up roughly 62% of the U.S. population. They are about 49% of those killed by police officers. African Americans account for 13% of the population and are 24% of those fatally shot and killed by the police.
Using this exact same data, two media sources made two seemingly opposing points. The left-leaning Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery concluded “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.” The conservative Daily Wire website emphasized “cops killed nearly twice as many whites as blacks in 2015.”
What’s the most appropriate way to interpret these statistics?
As Heather MacDonald points out in the Wall Street Journal, “A concentration of criminal violence in minority communities means that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force.”
On the other hand, the Washington Post article also quoted a study that found that about 13 percent of blacks fatally shot by police since January 2015 were unarmed, compared with 7 percent of white shooting victims. Black individuals shot and killed by police were also found to be less likely to have been attacking police officers than the whites fatally shot by police.
Data confirms racist behavior
It’s a valid point that blacks commit a proportionally larger amount of crimes, so they will naturally be victims of a proportionally larger number of police shootings. But this does not negate the fact that racism is apparent in police behavior.
Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Louisville, says research suggests police exhibit “shooter bias,” perceiving blacks to be a greater threat than non-blacks. Research subjects were found to be more likely to misinterpret a weapon if they were first shown a picture of a black face. ”We’re taking in so much information,” Nix explained, “we use mental short cuts to try to make sense of the world around us.”
Is this bias justified? It depends how you interpret the data. Between 2004 and 2013, U.S. police officers were killed by 289 white and 242 black assailants. In sheer numbers, more policemen were killed by whites. But proportional to their percentage of the population, blacks murder cops much more frequently.
It’s important to note that bias against blacks isn’t just restricted to white officers. A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on the misperception that they were armed.
Besides shooting deaths, biashas been evident in other ways. A recent study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr. analyzed police interactions with blacks, whites and Hispanics in ten cities. Fryer found that "blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force, such as being grabbed, pushed into a wall or onto the ground, or handcuffed, with police than whites."
North Carolina was the first U.S. state to mandate police-stop data collection in 2002. Based on a University of North Carolina study analyzing over 18 million traffic stops, the disparity between blacks and whites has risen over time. In 2002, black men were 70% more likely to be searched than white men. By 2013, this difference was over 140%. (Interestingly, black women and white women were about equally likely to be searched, cited, or arrested during traffic stops.)
Citing “probable cause” (i.e. “reasonably reliable information to suspect there is a fair probability that a person has committed a crime, or that a search will reveal contraband or evidence”), North Carolina officers were 250 percent more likely to search black men than white men in 2013, despite that police were consistently more likely to find contraband with white males than with black males.
Factors lead to fear and suspicion
Facts show that blacks perpetrate violent crime, including the murder of police officers, at a much higher rate than whites. These statistics are often downplayed by progressive organizations and news sources. Data also supports that racial bias exists in the police force, both subconsciously and consciously. The conservative media tends to omit this evidence in discussion about police brutality.
Fear and suspicion has resulted in paranoia on both sides.
"We can conclude that blacks in North Carolina appear to have good reasons to be mistrustful of the police, and that these trends appear to be growing over time," concludes North Carolina researchers.
The National Institute of Justice has reached the same conclusion. They add, “Researchers have been working to figure out how much [racial] disparity is because of discrimination and how much is due to other factors, but untangling these other factors is challenging.”
When we are willing to reassess our assumptions and approach these issues with frank discussion, we are more likely to work together towards the best resolution.
Beth Ballentine is a guest columnist for the All Sides column written exclusively for Politics Voices.
Beth is a political writer and editorial contributor for AllSides.com. Her passion for moving people beyond simple “left-right” thinking attracted her to AllSides, a media technology company that helps you see, understand and discuss multiple perspectives. The crowd-driven technologies at AllSides.com provide bias ratings, news, issues, search and civil dialogs that reveal a wide variety of perspectives and build bridges between conflicting ideas and people.