Police Shootings in Virginia — a Social Injustice?

Protests in Ferguson
Protests in Ferguson. Photo credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

As the national debate rages over police killing of blacks, Mark Bowes has conducted some excellent reporting for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It’s easy to argue by media-fueled anecdote, as the United States has been doing for months now. But at some point, we need to look at the numbers. Bowes has compiled a list of all “justifiable homicide” police killings in Virginia between 1990 and 2013. While the numbers do not conclusively settle the question as to whether blacks are being unfairly singled out for state-sanctioned, police violence, they do narrow the parameters of the debate significantly.

According to Bowes, Virginia police have reported 130 people killed by police in “justifiable homicides” since 1990. Of those, 59 were black (45.5%), 70 were white and one was Asian. (The percentages for more recent years, 2000 to 2013, were roughly the same.) The African-American population in Virginia is about 20%.

By the most superficial measure imaginable, then, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to get killed by police. But the picture changes when  the fatal-shooting ratio is compared to the percentage of violent crimes committed by African-Americans, about 60%. If we’re comparing people who engage in violent crime, blacks are less likely to be shot by police than whites. On the other hand, if we compare the fate of people assaulting law enforcement officers, blacks are somewhat more likely to be killed than whites. The experts quoted by Bowes agree that raw numbers will only take the analysis so far. It’s important to know the circumstances surrounding each shooting.

“Police killings are not random, and we shouldn’t expect killings to be proportionate to the population percentages, but instead proportionate with potentially violent encounters with police,” said Thomas R. Baker, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Baker homed in on another critical dynamic. Scholarly research indicates that blacks have more negative views of police officers than whites do, and they are less likely to cooperate with police.

Much of this distrust and dissatisfaction comes from negative direct and vicarious experiences with the police, including media accounts, and has unfortunately become inculcated among many black Americans. At the same time, police officers are not insensitive to this distrust and dissatisfaction, and may enter encounters with blacks on highest alert.

Providing additional training for police likely will have little effect unless accompanied by cultural changes on how police are perceived in the African-American community, Baker said.

Blacks have legitimate reasons, based in history, to distrust the fairness and objectivity of police. The question is the extent to which that distrust is justified today. Those who are committed to the idea of America as a fundamentally unjust society will say, of course, that it is fully justified. By picking a handful of incidents from across a nation of 320 million people, which then are magnified by the media, they can generate powerful images in support of their position.

But anyone can prove anything by cherry picking the data. Colin Flaherty, author of “White Girl Bleed a Lot,” has built a franchise around the documentation of black-on-white crime, most of which is ignored by mainstream media. Does this anecdotal data prove the existence of a black-on-white crime wave? No. We need to see the numbers.

Let us hope that Virginia never descends into the racial turmoil seen in St. Louis, New York, Cleveland and other cities. People of good will of all ethnicities and ideologies, especially those involved in the criminal justice system, need to work the problem described by Baker: Reduce the negative perceptions blacks have of police and reduce the hair-trigger responses of police active in black communities. As long as the negative perceptions of police are continually fed by national media, however, that won’t be easy to do.

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18 responses to “Police Shootings in Virginia — a Social Injustice?”

  1. There is a police killing mystery evolving in Fairfax County. While I don’t think there is any racial context to this story it does make me wonder why Fairfax County is being so squirrely about explaining themselves.


  2. Police are human like everyone else. They make mistakes. They screw up. We can’t look the other way and pretend nothing happen. But we also have to be careful about elevating mistakes into charges of systemic bias.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    IN CLeveland, you had a cop fatally shooting a 12-year-old who had a toy gun. According to news accounts, the police radios were messed up and the officer never got information that the gun in question might be a toy. If so, whose fault is that? And can you question why there are negative perceptions of the police? The blame doesn’t always fall on the patrolman on the beat but could rest with other flaws, such as communication.

    What’s also strange is why there is such an outcry over police shooting young black men when there isn’t exactly a crime wave going on. IN the ferguson case, the slain suspect may have taken some Swisher Sweet cigars at a convenience store. Not exactly a bank robbery. Is that worth a human life?

    1. The Cleveland case is tragic. But was it a manifestation of systemic bias among police officers? As you point out, the circumstances lent themselves to confusion and misunderstanding.

      Negative perceptions of police — yes, as I noted in the blog post, I acknowledge that there are historical reasons why African-Americans distrusted the police. The question is whether the reasons for that distrust are still valid. I’m suggesting that the suspicion is far less valid than it once was. Indeed, insofar as the mistrust leads African-Americans to respond to police with hostility, it is counter-productive and leads to the very thing that people are lamenting.

      That doesn’t let the police off the hook. They need to be more attentive to the trust issues and also to find ways to subdue recalcitrant people without killing them.

  4. I think Jim’s approach to this is emblematic of the problems we have with white folks perception of the issue vs black folks.

    If black folks think there is a problem – having white folks bean-counting numbers is not going to fix it. In fact, it comes across as denying there is a problem because each incident is termed an “unfortunate” incident while the black community sees it as series – a pattern of “unfortunate incidents” in which it’s always a black person.. more black folks arrested, in jail, found innocent by the innocence project , their kids in crappy schools, their teens arrested for petty street crime and flushed into the criminal justice system, etc.

    what black folks “hear” is white folks basically denying there is a problem …

    it’ s more than being insensitive.. it’s worse.

    and for those worried about my postings here – try offering your own views instead of worrying about others…

  5. jalbertbowden Avatar

    “The question is whether the reasons for that distrust are still valid. I’m suggesting that the suspicion is far less valid than it once was”
    based off what? NYC just admitted to their stop and frisk program, which was targeting minorities. that policy is alive and well in virginia, ask anyone living in one of our cities with large percentages of minorities. i personally have experienced it in reverse on multiple occasions, only the reverse is white privilege and i walked away scot-free.
    the investigations into the cleveland shooting have shown that the police call their stations in these communities forward out-posts, as any good occupying force would. if they view themselves as the occupiers, what should the public view them as? they are living it, the public is reacting to it.

    1. You’re arguing anecdotes based upon what you’re fed by a media complex that filters millions of police-people interactions to get the handful that feeds the narrative. Anecdotes that don’t fit the paradigm are buried. Incidents that occur in Cleveland and New York are extrapolated nationally and drive the discourse in places like Virginia where very different policing patterns may prevail.

      As for the mutual fear/mistrust between police and African-American communities, that is something I readily concede, as you can see by reading my post. Indeed, I think that goes to the root of the problem. And that’s what we need to address.

  6. If you’re in the service business, and your customers distrust you – for whatever reason, you can’t just blame the customers. You have to connect, and you have to change how you operate if that’s what it takes to earn their trust.

    1. Agreed. Police forces around the country need to do a better job of establishing trust in the communities they police. But as Thomas Baker argues, police behavior may not change much if African-Americans, especially young males, continue to greet them with hostility and defiance. Police are understandably concerned about their own safety. If met with hostility, they will tend to approach encounters in a high state of anxiety and alert — increasing the likelihood of the kind of events we are seeking to avoid.

      We need to work both sides of the equation.

  7. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    “Our Negroes were just fine until Dr. King came to town.” – Birmingham resident, 1963

    “By picking a handful of incidents from across a nation of 320 million people, which then are magnified by the media, they can generate powerful images in support of their position.” – James Bacon, 2015

    Yes, if only those people “committed to the idea” we live in an unjust society would stop agitating black people they would realize that officer really is friendly despite all the lived experience to the contrary. If only black people would be kinder and say “Yassir” and “Nosir” when approached by the police the police would clearly not shoot people with their hands up like Jerame Reid or choke small business owners like Eric Garner to death.

    Maybe if they just tipped their hats to nice police officers on the street they’d stop being sentenced for drug crimes at a disproportionate rate to known usage statistics. Maybe then America would finally make some effort at reconciliation for enslavement, Jim Crow, blockbusting, redlining and lynchings. Maybe then we wouldn’t put black school children in buildings named after traitors to the United States like JEB Stuart. Maybe if black people are just nice and smile when Bob McCulloch admits he allowed perjured testimony in a grand jury proceeding then the cops will unshoot Tamir Rice and John Crawford. Maybe if black people just hold hands in a prayer circle when the manslaughter charges against the cop who killed Aiyana Jones are dropped then the next time a cop kills a 7-year-old black girl the system will get it right.

    Incomplete statistics are invalid when advocates try to discuss “rape culture” but more than enough when it’s time to tell black people to reduce their negative perceptions of the police (which you nicely put ahead of police reducing their hair-trigger behavior).

    1. LOTFL, This is argument by sarcasm, in other words, not an argument at all.

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        My response wasn’t sarcasm. I was being dead serious in applying your standard to the real world and real people. If it sounds absurd it’s not because of anything I said.

  8. Sunday was the start of 2015 National School Choice Week

    Possibly an answer to the “crappy public schools” situation.

    from NCPA
    Improving Opportunities with School Choice

    School choice policies offer all families better educational options, allowing parents to choose the schools that best suit their children’s needs…

    1. school choice won’t fix this issue if they go about it the same way that public schools do.

      are you offering something that is defined and clearly better or are you just offering “something” with no standards and no accountability?

      Out of the frying pan and into the fire is no alternative.

      kids of poorly educated parents living in poverty do not learn the way that kids of educated parents learn.

      If you want to offer alternative schools that provide resources to deal with that issue and will prove their performance – I’m on board and I support it.

      but if what you are offering is a K-12 version of the diploma mills that fleece our GIs of their education benefits then no dice.

      you guys on the right – you’re bogus.. you’re not serious about the issues. You just want to further damage our existing institutions but you offer no serious alternatives.

      when you provide serious alternatives – you’ll get an audience and support.

      until then – we just consider you to be little more than an education equivalent of a pay-day loan lender.

      Prove your bona fides or admit you have no real interest in the issue.

      1. Larry, Think about your response above. Literally half of it is an extended ad hominem attack assaulting the sincerity and intelligence of those who think differently than you:

        “you guys on the right – you’re bogus.. you’re not serious about the issues. You just want to further damage our existing institutions but you offer no serious alternatives.

        when you provide serious alternatives – you’ll get an audience and support.

        until then – we just consider you to be little more than an education equivalent of a pay-day loan lender.

        Prove your bona fides or admit you have no real interest in the issue.”

        If you’d stopped writing before you tacked on this, you would have given El Sidd something substantive to respond to. As it is, any normal person would respond to the insults with barbs of their own — if they respond at all.

        1. Jim – I could go back and list out El Sidd’s previous responses about educating economically disadvantaged kids.

          Then I could add yours and Hill CIty’s Jim’s views.

          then I could add my previous comments on the issue long before El Sidd showed up.

          and my view has not changed.

          You guys do not offer legitimate alternatives.

          you are promoting an ideology with no serious proposals to respond to the actual issues.

          it’s just a hard right ideology that opposes public schools and offers no define better approach.

          and so you get the due consideration you deserve –

          when you come forward with a serious alternative – devoid of the echo-chamber non-solutions – you’ll get a better reception.

          you say ad-hominem. If I had a nickel every time I’ve heard you boys say “leftists” and “liberals” and “progressives” – I’d be a rich man.

          I’m returning the favor – nothing more.

          1. what I expect from Conservatives is what I have always expected – and supported – and that is not only identification of something that needs fixing – but a legitimate and workable alternative – devoid of ideology.

            Just practical and common-sense alternatives.

            “ideas” of which there are no other examples in the world – except in 3r world countries are not true “alternatives”.

            I expect ANY alternative to public school to 1. meet academic standards 2. provide the skilled staffing needed for harder-to-teach ids and 3. accountability for their performance.

            why is it you advocate strongly for standards and accountability but give the voucher school proposals a walk and essentially agree with folks like El Sidd instead of staking out your own ground for performance and accountability as part of your advocacy?

            It’s almost as if you donj’t really want it because you don’t weigh in – in the dialogue with El Sidd to make sure he does understand your view may not be the same as his?

            In fact, I could actually AGREE with You if you stipulated that any alternative would have to play by the same rules as public K-12 then we’d have no basis for disagreement and El Sidd would find himself not of the same view as you and then YOU TOO would be characterized as one of those pesky liberals – by El Sidd?

            so how about it? How about a clear, non-partisan, non-ideological approach without calling those who disagree with you “leftists” or “liberals” – AND – I’ll return the favor!

            but Jim when you implicate the “media conspiracy” now days – I know what ideological channel you are listening to, guy.

  9. some of the recent prior dialogue here has indicated that some believe that “genes” are responsible for the plight of black folks and now we’re hearing it’s the media complex and cherry-picking statistics.

    So just to verify – are genes also part of the issue?

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