“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” – Colin Kaepernick
This now infamous statement has spread to the entire NFL, amateur sports, and to almost every segment of society. While no one would deny that in American society, and on police forces across the nation, which are part of that society, there exists a level of racial bias. But is there, as the narrative goes, an epidemic of police violence against people of color? Using data from the Department of Justice and the Washington Post, the answer is not obvious.
Fatal violence at the hands of police
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 (2016 data). The year before, the number was 36. And they include cases where the shooting was justified, even if the person killed was unarmed.
Are minorities still harangued and routinely brutalized by the police?
Data from the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), provides detailed information about contacts between the police and the public. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) produces this report once a year. It is based on a nationally representative sample of more than 70,000 U.S. residents age 16 or older. If survey respondents say they have had contact with the police in the last year, they answer a questionnaire about the nature of their last contact, including any use of force. The questionnaire collects age, race, gender, etc., which can be used to break down the data by demographic groups.
Across the four PPCS data collections from 2002-11, blacks (3.5%) were more likely to experience nonfatal force during their most recent contact with police than whites (1.4%) and Hispanics (2.1%).
A greater percentage of persons who experienced the use of force (44.1%) had two or more contacts with police than those who did not experience force (27.5%).
Blacks (13.7%) were at least slightly more likely to experience nonfatal force than whites (6.9%) and Hispanics (5.9%) during street stops.
Of those who experienced force during their most recent contact, approximately three-quarters described the verbal (71.4%) or physical (75.0%) force as excessive.
Of those who experienced force during their most recent contact, 86.7% did not believe the police behaved properly.
The PPCS includes relatively mild forms of violence such as pushing and grabbing, as well as violence that is legally justified. Actual physical injury caused by police (kicking, punching, etc.) also seems rare, and indicates that both black and white men are injured at about the same rates, 0.08 percent.
Note: these are probably slight undercounts, because the survey does not 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.
The 2015 report compiled by the BJS notes that overall 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. 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.
However, there is racial disparity– 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, which is 3 times the amount.
The National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by BJS interviews victims of crime within the last 12 months. The survey collects information about the incidents, including the race and ethnicity of the offenders. Data from the NCVS survey conducted in 2015 (most recent), suggests that black men are three times as likely to commit violent crimes as white men. In most cases, police are more likely to use force against people who commit violent crimes.
There must be some bias, and it must play a part somewhere. But does it account for all of the disparity? Traffic stop data indicates some of this:
Relatively more black drivers (13%) than white (10%) and Hispanic (10%) drivers were pulled over in a traffic stop during their most recent contact with police. There were no statistical differences in the race or Hispanic origin of persons involved in street stops.
Drivers pulled over by an officer of the same race or ethnicity were more likely (83%) than drivers pulled over by an officer of a different race or ethnicity (74%) to believe that the reason for the traffic stop was legitimate.
White drivers were both ticketed and searched at lower rates than black and Hispanic drivers.
About 1% of drivers pulled over in traffic stops had physical force used against them by police. Of these drivers, 55% believed the police behaved properly during the stop.
How then do we account for the perceptions of how the police treat minorities? As various polls have demonstrated, black people are more likely to think that police violence against minorities is very common.
Note: I don’t pretend to understand the black American experience, however, growing up a lazy white teenage juvenile delinquent thug (LWJDT), I can vouch for the fact that if you put yourself in certain places, doing certain things, and the police show up, the interaction will generally be a little different than having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk in the kitchen with Aunt Bee.
While crime has continued to fall since the 1990s, polls indicate most Americans still believe it has increased. Is the same phenomena at work relative to police violence?
Racial bias, as well as racial disparities certainly exist, however the data does not support the narrative that these phenomena are widespread or exist in epidemic proportions.
Ferguson and protests by athletes such as Colin Kaepernick have brought into focus a narrative of police violence and social injustice. While the narrative may be flawed, it has led to better training and acknowledgement by police, and has re-opened the conversation. While critiquing the role of police in society has not been entirely productive, it may lead to better analysis and design relative to the wage, income and educational gaps that are currently driving the country further and further apart.
Raw data in .csv format as well as canned reports used in this story can be found here: