CONCERNING THE 48,000: Concerning our pitiful public discussions!

MONDAY, JANUARY 8, 2018

Part 1—The living and the dead:
In the past week, we'd been reviewing the Washington Post's database of police shootings for 2017.

The Post has compiled such data for the past three years. To review those data, click here.

The Post provides a valuable journalistic service by compiling these (imperfect) lists. This morning, the paper offers a front-page report about last year's numbers.

As we read the Post's report, a basic thought crossed our mind. That basic thought goes something like this:

You rarely encounter a sensible discussion of any topic within our mainstream press.

Perhaps we're overstating the matter. But here's the way four Post reporters began this morning's discussion, hard-copy headline included:
SULLIVAN, ANTHONY, TATE AND JENKINS (1/8/17): Police fatal-force toll: Nearly 1,000 last year

For the third year in a row, police nationwide shot and killed nearly 1,000 people, a grim annual tally
that has persisted despite widespread public scrutiny of officers’ use of fatal force.

Police fatally shot 987 people last year, or two dozen more than they killed in 2016, according to an ongoing Washington Post database project that tracks the fatal shootings. Since 2015, The Post has logged the details of 2,945 shooting deaths, culled from local news coverage, public records and social-media reports.

While many of the year-to-year patterns remain consistent, the number of unarmed black males killed in 2017 declined from two years ago. Last year, police killed 19, a figure tracking closely with the 17 killed in 2016. In 2015, police shot and killed 36 unarmed black males.

Experts said they are uncertain why the annual total shows little fluctuation—the number for 2017 is almost identical to the 995 killed by police in 2015.
We thought the references to what "experts said" was especially sad. As the reporters continue, they offer this account of what these savants have offered:
FOUR REPORTERS (continuing directly): Some believe the tally may correspond to the number of times police encounter people, an outcome of statistical probability. Other experts are exploring whether the number tracks with overall violence in American society.

“The numbers indicate that this is not a trend, but a robust measure of these shootings,” said Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who studies police use of force. “We now have information on almost 3,000 shootings, and we can start looking to provide the public with a better understanding of fatal officer-involved shootings.”
Does that passage make sense? Consider:

"Experts said they are uncertain why the annual total shows little fluctuation?" Especially when dealing with large populations, is it unusual for various numbers to stay largely unchanged over the course of a couple of years?

“The numbers indicate that this is not a trend, but a robust measure of these shootings?" Would you know how to say that in English?

"Some [experts] believe the tally may correspond to the number of times police encounter people?" We don't blame any "experts" for that surpassingly strange construction. We're inclined to blame the Washington Post—and the basic capabilities evolution has granted our floundering species.

At any rate, some experts believe the tally may correspond to the number of times police encounter people! And not only that:

"Other experts are exploring whether the number tracks with overall violence in American society?" Does anyone think that those unfortunate numbers don't "track with overall violence in American society" in some basic way and to some basic extent?

It's hard to know what point the reporters were trying to make in these opening paragraphs, in which they seem to marvel at the fact that the numbers have been roughly the same, from one year to the next, in the three years the Post has now chronicled.

It's hard to know what point the reporters were trying to make. But so it frequently tends to go in our public discussions. Except where partisan interests come into play, few analysts, observers or cable news sachems ever seem to notice or care.

In our view, you rarely encounter a sensible discussion of any major topic. Beyond that, you rarely read a discussion which hasn't been tilted in some way to adhere to some preferred story-line, narrative or broadly political script.

So we'd have to say it goes in this morning's report. The reporters focus on one disproportion in the data—and no, the disproportion they feature isn't this:
People shot and killed by police, 2017
Men: 940
Women: 45
That's a huge disproportion, but it isn't the one the reporters note. Instead, the reporters focus on this disproportion:
People shot and killed by police, 2017
Whites: 457
Blacks: 223
Those figures represent a type of disproportion too, one the reporters examine. Their examination starts in the third paragraph of this morning's report, then eventually moves on to this:
FOUR REPORTERS (continuing directly from above): National scrutiny of shootings by police began after an unarmed black teenager from a suburb of St. Louis was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked widespread protests, prompted a White House commission to call for reforms, galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and led many police agencies across the nation to examine their use of deadly force.

[...]

While the number of black males—armed and unarmed—who have been killed has fallen, black males continue to be shot at disproportionately high rates, the data shows.

Black males accounted for 22 percent of all people shot and killed in 2017, yet they are 6 percent of the total population.
White males accounted for 44 percent of all fatal police shootings, and Hispanic males accounted for 18 percent.

Other patterns also held steady in 2017, according to The Post database.
It's certainly true that black males have been shot and killed by police at a "disproportionately high rate" as compared to the group's share of the population. Starting with their reference to the shooting death of Michael Brown, the reporters call direct attention to this aspect of the Post's database, as is completely appropriate.

They make one lone reference to Hispanics, the fleeting reference we've posted directly above.

The reporters cite numbers for no other groups. For what it's worth, here are the Post's overall figures for last year, as they stand at present:
People shot and killed by police, 2017
Whites: 457
Blacks: 223
Hispanics: 179
Other: 44
Unknown: 84
In the Post's compilations. "others" tend to be Native Americans, Asian-Americans or people from the Middle East. The reference to "unknown" helps us remember that these compilations, while highly valuable, are, by their nature, incomplete and imperfect in various ways.

For our money, this morning's discussion of these numbers wasn't hugely insightful. We also thought the discussion was somewhat scripted or tilted. Consider the two disproportions we've already mentioned.

Why didn't the reporters mention the huge disproportion between men and women who were shot and killed? The disproportion there is vast. Why wasn't it mentioned?

We think the answer is obvious. Now let's consider the disproportion between whites and blacks.

As compared with shares of the population, the disproportion there is large. The reporters noted this plainly significant fact, but offered little additional analysis.

They highlighted the death of Michael Brown as they cited this disproportion. We think their citation is striking, in part because of some of the facts they left out.

This morning's discussion struck us as somewhat scripted, and as unhelpfully so. For us, it called to mind an unlovely claim we've sometimes made in the past:

We pretend to care about black kids when they get shot and killed. We pretend to care about these kids at no other time and in no other context.

That unlovely thought crossed our mind this morning. Indeed, as we read this morning's report, we thought about the 48,000 again.

Who the heck are the 48,000? We'll unveil that fact as the week proceeds.

We'll discuss our blatant disinterest in those kids all through the course of the week. If only we cared about the living as much as about the dead!

Tomorrow: The living and the dead in Detroit

Later: The living and the dead in Baltimore, Puerto Rico and Flint

12 comments:

  1. "Especially when dealing with large populations, is it unusual for various numbers to stay largely unchanged over the course of a couple of years?"

    It depends on which "various numbers" are being referred to. Deaths from outbreaks of various diseases may vary quite considerably. Do police shootings fall into the category of things one would assume would remain the same from year to year? Why should they? It isn't clear to me.

    "“The numbers indicate that this is not a trend, but a robust measure of these shootings?" Would you know how to say that in English?"
    The data indicate a steady state, and not a downward or upward change, i.e. trend. How hard was that to understand?

    "Does anyone think that those unfortunate numbers don't"track with overall violence in American society" in some basic way and to some basic extent? "

    Well, the whole point of statistics and science in general is NOT to start from some foregone conclusion, no matter how obvious that conclusion may initially seem.

    "We pretend to care about black kids when they get shot and killed. We pretend to care about these kids at no other time and in no other context... Indeed, as we read this morning's report, we thought about the 48,000 again. "

    The Post article is, apparently, not about the 48,000. That doesn't negate the value of the article or the importance of its topic.

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    1. Why do these analyses never mention suicide by cop? Are such deaths excluded from the statistics?

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  2. Hey Bob, since you're reading all that WaPo shit: have they figured out how to blame the Russkies for these particular unpleasantries yet? Some youtube video of unknown origin, perhaps?

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    1. 'Mao' really sucks up to his paymasters

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    2. The Washington Post, like everywhere else, figured out Trump's bigotry won him the election within 24 hours of the polls closing.
      They're just paid to make it look like it was Russian interference, or Hillary's (non-) corruption, or white voters concerned about the rigged economy, or really, anything other than Trump's bigotry.
      Look at the way they made believe Colin Kaepernick was insulting military veterans, just so they wouldn't have to discuss the nation's white supremacy fetish. They are a joke.

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    3. Yeah, it was either 'bigotry', or protest against globalist/neoliberal economics and endless imperialist war-making practiced by the elite (epitomized in the old psycho-witch).

      Or, perhaps, that's what 'bigotry' means, in which case we're in agreement.

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  3. "robust" is a specialized term in statistics. The reporter ought not to have used it, since a reader won't know what it's supposed to mean.

    Here's one way to say, “The numbers indicate that this is not a trend, but a robust measure of these shootings?" in English:

    The number of killings is large enough so that we can conclude that the pattern (in this case, no trend) is not just a coincidence.

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    1. Why does Somerby always blame the reporters when he doesn't understand something?

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    2. Dave the Guitar PlayerJanuary 9, 2018 at 12:14 PM

      Isn't it the job of a reporter to explain complicated events in language that everyone can understand? Why would a newspaper publish something of general interest in terminology that only some would understand?

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  4. There are a couple of things that the report should have addressed, were it both competent and honest.

    First...it would not have compared the fraction of killing victims who were black males to the proportion of black males within the total population. It could reasonably have compared fraction who were black males to the fraction of the male population who were black, or equivalently, the fraction of the dead who were black to the fraction of the population who are black. That would still have showed a substantial disproportion...22% of dead, but only 13% of the population. But comparing 22% to 6% is either innumerate or dishonest....precisely because, as Bob points out, essentially now women of any race are killed by the police.

    Secondly...I have not tried with the new data...but whenever I have looked, the rate of black shootings has been broadly in line with the rate of black incarceration. Since police shootings are most likely to occur in the apprehension of suspects in serious crime, that is roughly the rate we expect if the distribution of behaviors of the arrestees and the police were little affected by the race of the arrestee. Thus, the higher rate in the population as a whole of police killings of African Americans is explainable by the higher rate at which they are arrested. That higher arrest rate might be consistent with racism in the criminal justice system...but the higher death rate would not seem to require a greater disregard for African American than white life on the part of police officers.

    These points have been made repeatedly by reputable academics, yet they are resisted in absurd ways by many journalists...see the ridiculous pro-publica number on the ratio of deaths of African Americans to white in a narrow age range in a period of two years...an egregious example of grossly dishonest cherry-picking of data, that is still quoted and has never been withdrawn.

    Sadly, this is our (the left's) version of climate change denial.

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    1. I know but we, the left, are morally superior and smarter (woke) so it doesn't matter.

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