Washington Post Fallout

This database is exactly what we need, but where we go from here will take great vision

By Nick Selby  |   Jun 5, 2015

The Washington Post is doing a tremendously useful thing by creating and maintaining a database of officer-involved shootings.

I personally donate to the fatal encounters database, but this is great.

The Stats
Much bandied-about in the press are statistics that 2.5 people a day in the United States are killed by police, which creates the impression that there are these murdering cops out there just killing people for no reason. According to the Post, 385 people were killed by police in the first five months of 2015.

This included 337 people who were armed with deadly weapons – including 212 with guns, 53 with knives, 34 with either machetes, swords, shovels, box cutters, hatchets, screwdrivers, nailguns, blades and hammers and six with “unknown or undetermined” weapons.

This leaves 47 people who were unarmed who were shot by police. I would like to be very clear that “unarmed” does not mean “incapable of inflicting deadly physical force.” But even if we remove from the police every possible benefit of the doubt, the Post is implying that 12% of the officer-involved shootings would seem to be “unreasonable” use of force before an investigation revealed the facts of each incident.

This, in a nation of more than 300 million, with as many guns, protected by almost a million cops in about 18,000 police agencies. Again: One unlawful death, one unjustified death, is too many.

Not incidentally, 13 of those killed by police, according to the Post, were in possession of “toy guns.” While this may be controversial, I will state definitively my personal opinion that anyone who believes that an officer should be expected to determine, with a bet-your-life certainty, whether a gun pointed at a citizen or at a police officer is genuine is profoundly uneducated about deadly threats.

By collecting and publishing these figures, the Washington Post does exactly the right thing: They present statistics with some context, some sense of circumstance, to form the basis of discussion. Yet the article, despite its clean graphics, is still very incomplete.

We don’t know, for instance, whether incidents occurred in day or night, in urban or suburban or rural settings, during the commission of a crime, or whether it was one officer facing many people. We don’t get any hint of the circumstances of the initial contact, or the conflict.

Race is raised, as is the race of the unarmed. There are some disturbing analyses by the Post about the overall racial composition of those killed by police:

“About half the victims were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred.”

That paragraph is somewhat difficult to parse, because it appears that the “overall” number does not account for unarmed vs. armed people, whereas the statement that two-thirds of the unarmed who were killed by police were black or Hispanic does.

Also, it is unclear whether the Washington Post is engaging in propaganda rather than analysis when they state, “half the victims were white and half minority.” It’s a small point, but it is callously hypocritical at worst and editorially incompetent at best for a newspaper of national prominence to refer to someone who pulls a weapon on a police officer (as apparently happened in 88% of the cases in the Post’s database) as a, “victim” when he is killed by an officer acting in self defense.

There is much we don’t know, but an examination of just these facts might lead a reasonable person to question whether, “epidemic of police killings” is an accurate description of this dynamic.

We need more data to make more sense of this, and to have an informed national conversation about this crucial topic.