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 yearWe thought the references to what "experts said" was especially sad. As the reporters continue, they offer this account of what these savants have offered:
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.
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.Does that passage make sense? Consider:
“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.”
"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, 2017That'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, 2017Those 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.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.
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.
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, 2017In 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