Speakers at the conference were limited to ten minutes. My own remarks were based on Chapter 8 of my
with Dan, which draws on material from the Schomburg archives. The text is reproduced below with a few minor edits and links added (the full session is in the
I’m so immensely grateful to the organizers for the opportunity to speak on this occasion, with this amazing group of panelists.
I’d like to speak mostly about crime and policing, which is the topic of my recent book with Dan, and how this work led us to the archives of the Schomburg Center in search of information on the history of police-community relations, and data on the historical use of deadly force.
As many other panelists have pointed out, American Dilemma was built on the work of dozens of researchers, who painstakingly assembled vast amounts information. Only part of that knowledge made it into print, much of the rest remains largely hidden from view.
I’ll talk about what Dan and I found in the Schomburg archives in just a few minutes, but let me begin by saying a few words about what we know about police-related homicides today.
One thing we know is that we don’t know much—there’s still no complete and reliable source of official data on the use of deadly force by police in the United States.
As Paul Butler has written in his book Chokehold, the “information about itself that a society collects—and does not collect—is always revealing about the values of that society. We know, as we should, exactly how many police officers are killed in the line of duty. But we do not know, as we should, exactly how many civilians are killed by the police.”
Even James Comey, when he was FBI Director in 2015, described the absence of official statistics on police homicides as embarrassing, ridiculous, and unacceptable.
But over the past few years, unofficial statistics have started to be compiled, some by traditional media organizations like the Guardian and the Washington Post, and others by relatively new online sources like Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters.
These data only go back a few years, but we can already see a few patterns that I’d like to bring to your attention.
First, the scale of police killing in the United States far exceeds that in other comparable countries. According to the Guardian data, police kill about 1,100 civilians a year. In contrast, German police kill about 8 and British police about 2. The US population is about three times as large as these countries combined, but the rate of deadly force is more than a hundred times as great.
Second, there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in exposure to deadly force. The most highly exposed groups are African Americans and Native Americans, followed by Latinos, and the least exposed are whites and Asians. In the Guardian data for example, African Americans are about two and half times as likely to be victims of lethal force relative to white civilians. But these racial and ethnic disparities vary widely by location: in the five largest cities, the ratio of black to white exposure to lethal force ranges from four in Houston to eighteen in Chicago.
Third, there are staggering differences across states in the incidence of lethal force. The deadliest states have about eight times the rate of lethal force as the safest. Police homicides occur most often in Western states and parts of the South. The eight states with the highest incidence in the Guardian data are New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming, West Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Six of these are in the West, the other two in the South. By contrast, the safest states are in the Northeast.
Fourth, extremely large differences also exist among the largest cities. New York and Los Angeles are both large, diverse, coastal, and liberal cities with strict gun laws, but every demographic group is much safer in New York than in Los Angeles today. White civilians in Los Angeles are almost four times as likely to be killed by police as those in New York. Latinos in Los Angeles are more than eight times as likely to be killed as those in New York. And Houston is even deadlier for white civilians than Los Angeles. In fact, the differences in overall rates is so great that white residents of Houston are more likely to be killed by police than African Americans in New York City.
Fifth, and this came as a surprise to us, many states in the South, including the secessionist states of the former confederacy, have smaller racial disparities in exposure to lethal force than states elsewhere. Many of these Southern states have approximate parity between rates of lethal force faced by black and white civilians in the Guardian data. This is true of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee for example.
Bear in mind that these data are very recent and possibly incomplete, so these patterns may not hold up as better data become available. But we can make some tentative comparisons with the 1930s, based on information in the Schomburg archives.
Among the researchers who did the groundwork for American Dilemma was the sociologist Arthur Raper, who surveyed a large number of police departments by mail about police-related homicides in the five years ending in 1940. A total of 228 departments responded. These departments represented about 13 percent of the national population, and about 20 percent of the national black population at the time.
According to Raper’s data, police killed roughly four times as many African Americans as lynch mobs did in the 1930s. In fact, police accounted for more African American deaths than all other white Americans combined. This remains approximately true even today.
Many cities had much higher rates of killing in the 1930s than they do now. Denver, Covington KY, and Jacksonville had rates over fifty per million in the Raper data, and Atlanta, Nashville, Kansas City, and Chattanooga had rates above forty per million. In the Guardian data, only two cities—Miami and Stockton, CA—had rates in this range.
There are fifty-two cities in Raper’s data that had over 50,000 people in 1940. In this group of cities, the rate at which African Americans were killed by police fell from about twenty per million in 1935–1940 to about ten in 2015–2016. So at least in the South, the incidence of lethal force faced by black civilians has declined, although from an extremely high level.
One of the points that Dan and I have explored in our book is that fearsomeness and fearfulness are two sides of the same coin. Murder is the only major crime that can be motivated by pure preemption—people sometimes kill simply to avoid being killed first. This makes fearful people dangerous, and fearsome people afraid. When people can be killed with impunity, these effects are amplified and very high rates of killing can arise in a climate of fear.
In the 1930s fear was rampant—both fear of police and fear by police. Drawing on prior work by H. C. Brearley, Raper observed that between 1920 and 1932, more than half of interracial homicides in which the killer’s identity was known were either slayings of black civilians by white police officers or slayings of white officers by black civilians. Along similar lines, Khalil Muhammad has observed in his pioneering book The Condemnation of Blackness that according to “dozens of letters written by black suspects and convicts to the NAACP in the 1920s, self-defense was one of the most frequently cited causes of interracial homicide of white male citizens and police officers by black men.”
In fact, one of Raper’s most striking findings is the extremely high rate at which officers in the South were killed in the 1930s when compared with today. Among Raper’s respondents, 1.3 police officers were killed per year per million population, while current rates are between 0.1 and 0.2 per year per million. It seems that officers have become much safer from civilians than civilians have become from officers.
Since American Dilemma was largely a study of the South, we don’t have comparable historical data for other parts of the country. What we do know, though, is that variations in the use of lethal force across law enforcement agencies are immense. And these differences persist even when one takes into account such factors as gun prevalence, crime intensity, police-civilian contact, arrest rates, and the degree of danger faced by officers themselves.
It seems that selection, training, leadership, and organizational culture matter a great deal. Put differently, high rates of deadly force arise not from bad apples, but from bad orchards. Certain soils are fertile environments for the growth of practices that result in high rates of killing. We don’t yet have a good understanding of what makes them so. But we do understand that the painstaking work of a team of talented researchers three generations ago, and the efforts to preserve the fruits of their labor right here at the Schomburg Center, will be of enormous help to us as we grapple with these questions.
An additional and very valuable source of historical information on the use of deadly force in the United States is the Kerner Commission report of 1968. The report is discussed at length in the book, and some of the key lessons are described in an article that Dan and I wrote for the Marshall Project a few months ago. An interview with Phillip Adams of Late Night Live on ABC (Australia) and a more recent conversation with Tonya Mosley on NPR’s Here and Now also covers some of this ground.