Liberals Are Seriously Misled About Police Shootings
The gulf between perception and reality must now be measured in light-years.
As political divides drive people further into separate realities, narratives come to supersede facts. Symbolic “truths” come to supersede the actual truth. When enough people in one’s orbit parrot the same views and claims with utter conviction, and everyone seems to uncritically accept them at face value, sheer repetition and peer pressure can turn nonsense into unquestionable “truth.” Once an echo chamber has achieved this effect, anyone within who questions these received “truths” is treated as one questioning whether gravity exists, or whether rape is really wrong. Groupthink transforms claims that demand evidence and deserve discussion and critical evaluation into such perceived no-brainers that to even question it is obscene, a blemish on one’s morals or intelligence. This is evident perhaps nowhere more quintessentially than in the issue of police killings of black Americans.
In left of center circles, an orthodoxy around race and policing has calcified into a full-blown dogma: law enforcement is systemically racist against black people, who are indiscriminately killed in vast numbers by racist cops who virtually hunt these citizens the moment they set foot outside their front doors. The information ecosystem is dominated by left of center institutions and voices. Most national news broadcasts, articles, podcasts, and social media cover this issue in a way that conveys the impression of an epidemic of racist state-sanctioned murder. These incidents are portrayed as part of a pattern of such scope and scale that it seems imperative we move heaven and earth to fix it, and steamroll any degenerate who would stand in our way. Every area of the media not explicitly right wing feeds this narrative, with the exception of a small number of contrarian noodges who insist on pesky things like facts and logical consistency.
Last week, NPR’s flagship program “All Things Considered” ran a segment on racist police violence against black Americans, a subject they cover daily. In it, a guest made the claim that “Thousands of officers get away with killing people without consequences every year in this country”, a claim for which no evidence was offered, nor exists, and went unchallenged and uncorrected by the host. According to the Washington Post, about 1,000 total people in the US are shot and killed by the police every year. For the claim aired on NPR to be even close enough to stretch to “half truth” status, we would have to consider each and every one of these shootings a straight-up murder. Independent journalist Zaid Jilani called this out on Twitter, and got enough attention for NPR to issue a clarification at the bottom of the web page where the audio segment and transcript are archived. This is how the press now operates. Narrative supersedes truth, and it falls to members of the audience to fact check the content for the journalists, hoping to get corrections made if they can make a big enough stink on social media — which, even when successful, will only be seen by a fraction of those who consumed the initial falsehood.
The way this issue is covered immensely misleads the public. The Skeptic Research Center recently published a report asking respondents about race and policing. Asked “How many unarmed black men were killed by the police in 2019?”, nearly 39 percent of liberals said “at least 1,000”, including about 6.5 percent who said “about 10,000”, and 5.5 percent who said “more than 10,000.” Among those identifying as “very liberal”, 53.5 percent said at least 1,000 unarmed black men were shot in 2019, including over 14 percent who said about 10,000, and nearly 8 percent who said more than 10,000.
According to the Washington Post’s Police Shootings Database, the number of unarmed black men shot to death by cops in 2019 was 13. Thirteen. The Skeptic researchers described these left-leaning responses as “A likely error of at least an order of magnitude.”
The Washington Post’s data is considered the gold standard by almost everyone across the political landscape (a rarity these days), but another databased called “Mapping Police Violence”, collected by researchers and activists, found that 27 black men were killed in 2019 by the police (by any means, not just shooting.) The Skeptic researchers also note that “Adjusted for the number of law enforcement agencies that have yet to provide data, this number may be higher, perhaps between 60-100.”
Any way you slice it, these numbers are staggering. Whether it turns out that 100 unarmed black men are killed by police per year, or 13, that is a tragedy. Make no mistake, 13 unarmed black people killed is 13 too many. But 13 ain’t 1,000, or 10,000, and to have a large subset of society — translating into tens of millions of people — believing that somewhere between 1,000 to 77,000 percent more people are being killed than in fact are should alarm us. This is an eye-popping disconnect.
Asked “In 2019, what percentage of people killed by police were Black?”, Skeptic found the disconnect spanned the entire political spectrum. Every cohort — from “very liberal” (who answered 60 percent), to “liberal” (56 percent), to “moderate” (45 percent), to “conservative” (38 percent), and “very conservative” (44 percent) — overestimated the percentage. A 2020 University of Pennsylvania report found that 26.7 percent of Americans killed by cops in 2019 were black. Black Americans constitute 13-14 percent of the country, and so yes, they are killed by the police at disproportionate rates, by definition. That doesn’t tell us everything we need to know — socioeconomics, criminality, culture, and many other factors are relevant, yet it is nevertheless a real disparity. But when even the MAGA hat wearing “Blue Lives Matter” crowd is inflating the figures by 17 percent, it demonstrates how profoundly misinformed the media landscape has left us as a society.
We will not solve societal problems if we do not have an accurate picture of what’s going on in society. Problems need to be identified and then quantified. If we think a problem is far worse than it actually is, it becomes easier to justify increasingly radical actions to address it. According to a March 2021 poll, 18 percent of Americans say they support defunding the police, and 12 percent say they favor abolishing the police altogether (these numbers were 47 percent and 15 percent, respectively, last summer). There are undoubtedly a few cynical zealots among these folks whose radicalism predated the 2020 “racial reckoning”, and who are only too happy to play up the problems in society to advance their agendas. But many in the defund/abolish the police crowd believe they are witnessing something not far off from a mass murder occurring before their eyes. They see a crisis, and in a crisis, drastic measures become more appealing than they otherwise would be.
What’s more, a culture of fear, distrust, and hostility is being enflamed beyond what there is any rational basis for. 68 percent of black respondents in a recent poll say that police violence against black Americans has gotten worse in the past year. Flip on the news, open a news site or newspaper, or log onto social media, and it’s no wonder they think that. In reality, 2021 is halfway over, and with 380 total people shot and killed by police so far, and with no increase in the percentage of those killed being black, we are on pace for a 24 percent decrease in police killings of civilians, including black Americans. Millions of black Americans are made to feel more afraid for their lives, more resentful of injustice, and less trustful of our institutions than they would otherwise. This is not to say none face hardships, injustices, or dangers — many do — but it is a disservice to anyone to be influenced to live in a state of greater fear and suspicion than they need to be.
The project of improving policing, reducing police violence and abuse, and enacting more effective and just laws is a worthy one. It is one of the great anxieties of leftism and progressivism that acknowledging when progress has been made, or when certain problems are not quite as dire as initially thought, will dissipate any appetite for change, and engender a climate of complacency. To those who want to see transformational change in society, the temptation to hype the problems and shoot any messenger bearing inconvenient facts isn’t just real — too often, it’s irresistible. But if a particular societal change can only be brought about by twisting the facts, distorting reality, and misleading the public, it is a fool’s errand. As John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Change built on the shoddy foundation of falsehoods is doomed to failure. The necessary first step to improving society is living in reality.
See also: “Strategies to Reduce Police Violence.”