Is Racism a Driving Force in Fatal Police-Citizen Encounters?

In the aftermath of the police shooting of knife-wielding black teenager Ma’Khia Bryant (in the course of her attack on an unarmed black teenager), and of the Derek Chauvin verdict, President Biden made these racially fraught remarks to Congress tonight:

We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America. Now is our opportunity to make real progress. Most men and women in uniform wear their badge and serve their communities honorably. I know them. I know they want to help meet this moment as well.  My fellow Americans, we have to come together. To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.

So what’s the truth here?  Was “systemic” (or other) racism the cause of the killing of either George Floyd or Ma’Khia Bryant?  And is there a wall of distrust between law enforcement and the people they serve?

As to Derek Chauvin, Andy McCarthy in the National Review observes:

Not a shred of evidence was introduced at the trial that Derek Chauvin is a racist. None. There was nothing in the weeks of testimony that even hinted at such a thing. The prosecutors who aggressively urged the jury to convict Chauvin of murder never intimated that racism played any role in the crimes. They convincingly argued that he was a bad cop, not a racist cop.

The police did not hunt down George Floyd. They did not randomly happen upon him. They did not make a discriminatory choice to hassle him. Instead, the police responded to a citizen complaint from a local market, Cup Foods, based on a report by a young black cashier that Floyd had passed him a patently counterfeit $20 bill.

McCarthy’s whole essay is worth the read.

And as Rich Lowry notes in his article, “The Cops Shoot People of Different Races for the Same Reasons”:

[T]he cases [of black and white shooting victims] are largely indistinguishable — how they started, how they played out, and, emphatically, how they ended.

This is the overall sense that one gets from the Washington Post’s famous database of police-involved shootings. Reading through it, there is no stark racial difference that jumps out, rather a dreary sameness. The fact patterns that get people shot by the cops, whether they are white, black, or Hispanic, are largely the same.

There are the most extreme cases, when suspects engage in gun battles with cops. But pointing a gun, including a fake gun, at an officer also is likely to end badly. So is approaching a cop with a knife or even a metal pipe and refusing, despite repeated orders, to put it down. Resisting arrest is a common theme and, quite often, the people killed by the police were obviously mentally disturbed.

The Washington Post database suggests we have a violence problem in America and certainly a mental-health problem, but not — at least not on the face of it — a race problem.

Similarly, as I have noted, see, e.g. here and here, it can come as no surprise that blacks become involved with violent police reactions disproportionately to their numbers in the general population when their participation in violent crime occurs in similarly disproportionate numbers compared to the general population.  That is not a truth any normal person is going to be happy about  —  but it’s still the truth.

And what to make of President Biden’s implicit (but quite clear) assertion that, in part on account of racism, there is a gulf of distrust between the police and the people they serve?

What to make of it is that it’s not true.  A Gallup poll taken last year, a few weeks after the George Floyd killing, and in the heat of the nationwide protests that followed, found that four times as many blacks wanted the same or more police patrolling in their neighborhoods as wanted less, see “Black Americans Want Police to Retain Local Presence,” as reported in Newsweek.

As to trust in the police overall, that too has been tested by Gallup.  Here is the quick summary of the results from the survey (taken four months ago):

Police Officers in Top Five, Members of Congress and Salespeople Worst-Rated

Police officers rank fifth this year, with 52% rating them highly, similar to their 54% score in 2019, and making them the only profession aside from the top four to have a majority of Americans rating their ethics highly.

Members of Congress and car salespeople tie for last, with just 8% rating them highly, and advertising practitioners are close at 10%. Members of Congress had received acclaim from 12% of Americans in 2019, their highest in a decade, but even that small increase was short-lived.

I hope I’m not being too impolite in noting that President Biden was a member of Congress for 36 years.