Another Use and Abuse of Statistics…

Sources: Fairfax County Police Department, U.S. Census Bureau

by James A. Bacon

The Fairfax County Police Department publishes a statistical report every year on the police use of force in the county. There were 594 use-of-force incidents reported in 2019, up from 510 the previous year. The publication provides data with minimal commentary.

This is the headline from the Reston Now article summarizing the report: “Fairfax County Police Disproportionately Use Force on Black Individuals.” The headline was backed up by this paragraph:

Black residents were involved in roughly 31 percent of use-of-force incidents, even though they make up a little over 8 percent of the total population. Roughly 48 percent of all use-of-force incidents involved whites, who make up 67 percent of the total population.

By placing the data in the context of the national uproar over the George Floyd killing and calls for police reform, as the story did, Reston Now feeds the standard media Oppression Narrative. But the story left a lot out, which seems to be the usual operating procedure. Cherry pick the facts that support the media narrative, and omit anything that might call it into question.

Clearly, Fairfax police do use force on African Americans out of proportion to their numbers in the population, as seen in the table atop this post. That leaves unanswered the question of whether African-Americans are more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to be involved in crimes, and especially if they are more likely to resist arrest, thus putting themselves in a position where force is warranted.

Unfortunately, the Fairfax report does not provide the data that allows us to answer those questions.

Another perspective lacking from the Reston Now article is the remarkably low use of force against Asians. Residents of Asian background comprise 20.2% of the county’s population but only 3.5% of use-of-force incidents. Why is that not worthy of notice? After all, Asians are described by many commentators as “people of color.” Why would police be so much less likely to use force against Asians than other people of color?

Hispanics, by the way, comprise 16.4% of the county population and 17.6% of community members in use-of-force incidents. Police use force against Hispanics in rough proportion to their numbers. Not only are Hispanics “people of color,” they are said to be brown people of color! Is this not worthy of note?

While police deployed force in 594 incidents (involving 688 community members), community members engaged in 231 assaults on the police, according to the Fairfax police data. Unfortunately, the report presented no data illuminating how often the police used force in response to assaults initiated by the populace. Examining the relations between assaults on police and police use of force would seem to be a logical thing to do. Likewise, it would be logical to ask if African Americans, after years of relentless rhetoric about them being victims of police brutality, were more likely than others to assault police officers.

The Fairfax data do not allow us to draw any firm conclusions.

Note on the statistics quoted here: The Fairfax County report broke down the county’s “demographics” by race, not ethnicity. In other words, it did not break out Hispanics as a separate group. However, when reporting the demographics of individuals involved in use-of-force incidents, the FCPD did break out Hispanics separately. To compare apples with apples, I used 2019 Census Bureau data. For “white,” I used the bureau’s “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino” category. Accordingly, my percentages differ from those in the report. As for Reston Now, frankly, I am at a loss to explain it derived some of its numbers.

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6 responses to “Another Use and Abuse of Statistics…

  1. I agree that the numbers alone do not tell the whole story. But, the disparity in use of force on blacks, almost half of all use-of-force incidents, is so large that somebody in the county administration should look behind those numbers to determine how often such incidents were justified.

    There are two other aspects that these statistics do not reveal. First, what is the source of the data–police reports? So, how often do officers use force, but not report it?

    Another shortcoming is that use-of-force incidents do not include those situations in which the police singled out persons of color (black or brown) because they looked “suspicious” or stopped them because of a “malfunctioning brake light” and then searched the car. No force was used, but there certainly was intimidation and the threat of force if the person unduly stopped did not fully cooperate.

  2. Although I did not look at all 594 incidents, I did look at the 28 officer-involved shootings in Virginia (http://fcta.org/Pubs/Reports/2020-06b-fac.html). All were justified. Of the 28 incidents in which an officer (police or sheriff) shot someone, 14 of the people shot were white; 6, black; 1 Cambodian; and 7, those whose race could not be determined. Of those killed, 11 were white; 2, black; and 1 whose race could not be determined. The others were injured but not killed. If the person did not attack the police, there would have been only two incidents. In neither case, was the person killed. Those killed by police would be much fewer in number if people were taught (and learned) not to attack the police.

  3. It’s a reasonable question to ask Police Chief Roessler, County Executive Hill and the BoS to provide more facts about the impact on blacks. They are the people responsible for operating the FCPD and ensuring it follows the law and constitution. The “One Fairfax” policy doesn’t fix the problem.

  4. Statistically speaking, a sample set of one is always tightly clustered about the mean.

  5. RE: “Not only are Hispanics “people of color,” they are said to be brown people of color!”

    It looks to me like the writer of the newspaper article classifies Hispanics as white. Otherwise the following claim makes absolutely no sense: “Roughly 48 percent of all use-of-force incidents involved whites, who make up 67 percent of the total population.”

    The police statistic clearly states White (non-Hispanic) people are involved in 33% of use-of-force incidents and comprise 50.3% of the population.

    However, also from the police statistic, White + Hispanic = 50.6% of incidents and 66.7% of the population. I suppose 50.6 could be considered “roughly 48”. In any event, it’s a lot closer to 48 than it is to 33.

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