Ever since the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, Americans have been bombarded with assertions that black men face a unique and dangerous threat — not from members of their own community but from the very law enforcement officers who are sworn to “serve and protect” them. Hashtags such as #DrivingWhileBlack and #WalkingWhileBlack have perpetuated a narrative that black Americans risk being gunned down by police simply because of the color of their skin. Using individual anecdotes of police misconduct and the now-discredited “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has built a case that American police are out of control.
The conservative response is clear: While no one believes the police are perfect, on the whole they tend to use force appropriately to protect their own lives and the lives of others. Moreover, racial disparities in the use of force are largely explained by racial disparities in criminality. Different American demographics commit crimes at different rates, so it stands to reason that those who commit more crimes will confront the police more often. Yes, there are rogue officers — and those rogue officers should be prosecuted — but the police are still a force for good in our society.
In response to the allegations of Black Lives Matter activists, the Washington Post launched an unprecedented, case-by-case study of police shootings. After a year of research, the data are in, and they confirm the conservative position: The police use force mainly to protect human life, the use of force against unarmed suspects is rare, and the use of force against black Americans is largely proportional to their share of the violent crime rate.
According the Post, as of December 24, American police had fatally shot 965 people in 2015. (The Guardian, in the midst of its own study, reports a slightly higher number of shootings). 564 of those killed were armed with a gun, 281 were armed with another weapon, and 90 were unarmed. In fully three-quarters of shootings, “police were under attack or defending someone who was.”
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