On Monday, the Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department, following the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
Video of McDonald’s last moments, shot 16 times by a white officer, made a stark contrast with images of a handcuffed Robert Lewis Dear, the white suspect in the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs — as activists were quick to point out.
“We’ve been killed for far less,” tweeted DeRay Mckesson, an outspoken figure within the Black Lives Matter network.
In reality, “active shooter” incidents like the Planned Parenthood killings — as well as the mass shooting that devastated San Bernardino, California, less than a week later — are just too rare to provide useful information about how police respond to suspects of different races.
In September 2014, the FBI released a study of 160 incidents in which a suspect was “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people.”
It didn’t address the question of race. But one of the authors, Pete Blair of Texas State University, provided BuzzFeed News with a more detailed breakdown of the outcomes.
Out of 34 black suspects in the dataset, 10 were shot by police, compared to 25 out of 126 suspects of other races, who were mostly white. Proportionately, that means more black suspects were shot by police: 29% versus 20% for other races. But because the numbers are so small, this difference could be due to chance.
What’s more, police responding to someone who is known to have killed or wounded, and who is still armed and dangerous, have very different rules of engagement compared to officers operating routinely on the streets.
“By definition, the suspect has fired a weapon at someone. This, in general, makes the use of deadly force acceptable,” Blair told BuzzFeed News by email.
Data gathered by major newspapers provides a better measure of the concerns raised by Black Lives Matter. The Washington Post is compiling information on people shot by police in 2015, including their race and whether they were armed.
Of the 867 deaths the paper has logged so far, and for which there was information on race, 27.1% were black, 17.9% Latino, 51.1% non-Latino white, and 1.4% Asian. The latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that 13.2% of Americans are black, 17.4% Latino, 62.1% non-Latino white, and 5.4% Asian.
This suggests that black Americans are disproportionately likely to be fatally shot by police. However, it’s hard to say from these simple percentages whether a typical encounter between police and a black suspect is more likely to end up with a shooting than if the suspect is white.
That’s because black Americans also have disproportionately more interactions with police. One way of measuring this is through arrests: The latest data compiled by the FBI indicates that 28.3% of people arrested in 2013 for the crimes it monitors were black, and 16.6% were Latino — not so different from the percentages for fatal shootings by police.
But as the animation below shows, in situations in which the suspect was unarmed, or where they were not clearly attacking the police or members of the public, the percentages by race skew further from the general population.
Of the 82 unarmed suspects in the Washington Post’s data on fatal shootings by police, 37.8% were black and 20.7% were Latino.
Data on police killings compiled by the Guardian paint a broadly similar picture: Of the 91 suspects shot by police that the paper classified as unarmed, and for which there was information on race, 36.3% were black and 19.8% were Latino.
The Washington Post has also recorded whether or not each incident was an “attack in progress.” To meet this definition, the incident had to involve a suspect shooting at the police or members of the public, pointing a gun at them, or otherwise launching a violent assault — which could include an assault with a motor vehicle.
The numbers for 231 incidents in which the suspect was not clearly launching an attack, and their race was known, again suggest that minorities face a greater danger of being fatally shot by law enforcement: 29.9% of these suspects were black, and 27.7% Latino.
See here for the data and more analysis.
Peter Aldhous is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. His secure PGP fingerprint is 225F B2AF 4B8E 6E3D B1EA 7F9A B96E BF7D 9CB2 9B16
Contact Peter Aldhous at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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