Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Because Numbers Matter

Trigger warning (with no irony intended): I am going to be trying to make some points based on numbers. Some of the numbers might be considered controversial, the consequences of those numbers may make some unconformtable, and the conclusions may even be offensive.

If looking at a controversial topic is likely to offend you, perhaps this particular post is not for you.


For those who have not left the virtual room to go read about football or to reinfornce your political prejudices at Breitbart or DailyKos, let's continue.

There has been an enormous amount of energy - understandbly angry energy over the past few weeks. Anger, fear, and recrimination. Over the course of a few days, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then Charlotte, North Carolina shot and killed two black men under different, but not entirely dis-similar circumstances. The killing of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa appears to be a tragic case of police violence. The accused officer will have her day in court, but if the facts back the current narrative, then this officer needs to be held to account.

The jury to a degree is still out on the killing of Keith Scott in Charlotte (Was he sitting in his car holding a book or did he have a gun? Did his wife have a prior court order against him because he threatened to kill her with a gun?) Ultimately, the video and testimony are going to uncover what really happened.

Oddly, the reactions to the two have been completely different. In Tulsa (as of now, the more egregious case), the community has allowed the wheels of justice to turn, however slowly and imperfectly. In Charlotte, mobs immediately mobilized, assaulting unfortunate people caught in their way and destroying property in an all-too-familiar way.

Fingers are pointing and, as Newton's Second Law applied to sociology predicts, reactive "solutions" have been offered.

At the heart of the controversy has been the "Black Lives Matter" movement, simultaneously painted as champion and villain, depending on whom you speak to.

The issue has become centre-stage in the national election, and yesterday, Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton was in North Carolina, basking in her debate triumph over Republican rival Donald Trump.  NPR this morning interviewed several of her supporters, including Joan Tilghman, an enthusiastic supporter of Mrs Clinton's campaign of "inclusion."

It's no mystery that Ms. Tilghman - a black woman - supports Secretary Clinton, as she is in the intersection of two core Democratic constituencies.

What stood out was her language describing the reason for her support:
I'm terrified. I'm a black woman. I've got black sons. I've got black grandsons. Some police officer in a helicopter is going to think my grandson is a bad dude because he's tall and dark skinned, so I'm terrified. [emphasis added]
Much has been said over the past few years about how black parents - particularly of sons - need to have a "talk" with their children about the particular dangers of encounters with the police. I am not black, and I am not going to fall back on the obvious cliche about "having black friends," and thus I will certainly accept perception as reality.

It seems that, indeed, there exists amongst a large segment of our fellow Americans an all-too-real fear that at some point in their lives or, in a sense worse, the lives of their children, a rogue cop is going to kill them indiscriminately.

Setting aside the arguments about a football player refusing to stand for the national anthem or whether BLM is hero or villain, this is a serious problem. It's an insidious one. It's a corrosive one.

It may even be an existential problem for a nation that is rapidly becoming truly diverse in that there will, in my lifetime, be no majority group. I've read books ranging from the Sneetches (Dr Seuss) to The Lord of the Flies. Increasingly fractious tribal cultures typically do not end well.

But, there has been so much heat, and precious little light.

I accept as true the idea that parents of black (particularly) sons feel a fear that requires them to warn their children against police.

Is that fear based in reality? Is it healthy?

Looking at the data published in the Washington Post, there were 991 people killed by police in 2015.

That is a large number. Nearly 1,000. I am not at all anti-cop, but now matter how you slice that, it seems to me that far too many Americans die at the hands of people sworn to protect and to serve. I personally think that that reflects the unfortunate, violent nature of our culture.

Digging deeper, of the 991 killed, 949 were men - more than 95%.

At the least, parents are rightly identifying that their sons are at far, far higher risk than their daughters. As an aside, I have not heard of a single protest or march declaring that Men's Lives Matter, despite the reality that males are more than 9-1 more likely to be killed than women. In short, police violence (justified or not) is not an equal opportunity offender.

The problem identified with such an argument is that men are far more likely than women to be involved in violent crime. The data are pretty incontrovertible, and, more to the point, uncontroversial. According to FBI data, men represent 89% of the arrests for robbery, 78% of the arrests for aggravated assault, and 91% of the arrests for homicide. (For what it's worth, males also make up more than three of four victims of murder).

Violent crime is a man's game, and thus, are simply in situations where they are likely to encounter an armed, police response.

No one (I hope) disputes this.

Drilling just a bit further, of the 991 people killed by police, 258 were black (26%). As black people make up just over 12% of the population (based on 2010 census figures), so statistically, black people are more likely to be killed by police.

That is an undeniable fact. I am not going to wander onto the thin ice of whether a similar sort of logic that excuses the excess of men killed by police vs. the excess number of black people killed by police. I do not know for a fact that black people are inherently more violent than others; I don't know for a fact that men are inherently more violent than women. The numbers are what they are, and the belief that black people are more likely than white people to die at the hands of police is true.

Now, if one were to take the meta-step that blacks, more than whites, are at risk for police violence, and that men are (far) more likely to die by cop than women, then the choice of blacks to warn their sons seems on its face a rational one.

But is it?

Also reported in the data is the fact that, of the 991 people who were killed by police in 2015, 782 of them were reported to be in possession of a deadly weapon at the time. That is nearly 80%. 34, in addition, had "toy weapons" (the sad case of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio comes to mind).

A total of 93 of the 991 who were shot and killed by police in 2015 were "unarmed." That is less than 1 in 10.

If we look at the intersection of all of these items:

  • 991 police shootings
  • 96% male
  • 26% black 
  • 9% unarmed

we arrive at an estimate that 23 unarmed black men were killed by police in 2015.

Now, one is too many. Police are there to uphold the law; as the motto goes, police are supposed to serve and protect.

But 23.

By contrast, there were 59 shark attacks in 2015 in the US. 

Again, I understand that the police are there to serve and protect, and that sharks are under no such obligations.

But 23.

Stories like Terence Crutcher are tragic, and they (rightly) get headlines.

But looking at these data, the idea that a black parent should be "terrified" that a police officer is going to shoot his or her child is just not backed up by the facts.

It's an old cliche, but it's true: People need to guard themselves against real threats. Claims that one should be paralyzed by fear - terrified - that any day, your kid could go off to school and not come home because a racist policeman in a helicopter is going to shoot him is just not reflective of any sort of mathematical reality.

Racism exists.  Police are human beings, and hence, yes. There are racist cops. As a society, we need to look in the mirror (white, black, as well as Asian, Hispanic, or anyone else for that matter) and decide whether we really can try to check our biases and actually tolerate, if not embrace, each other.

But it's extremely unhelpful to a functioning society to perpetuate what has to be, by any sort of yardstick calibrated in reality, little more than a paranoid fanstasy.

Your sons are simply not going to be killed by police.

When I was 16 and started to drive, my father sat me down and told me how to behave if I were ever to be stopped by a police officer, and I remember to this day.

Be respectful.
Show your hands (particularly at night)
Do not talk back or make sudden movements.
Always show  your hands.
Answer the questions trutfhully and courteously.
Always show your hands.

I've been pulled over, multiple times, in the three decades that I've been licenced to drive. I always follow the above. These rules seems equal parts common courtesy and common sense, which are not restricted from black, white, or any other sort of person.

Go ahead and teach them to be respectful of cops, as they would be of any person that they meet. Remind them that, if they happen to be stopped, the police have no way to know just by looking at you what you intend to do, so be smart. Teach them that police officers, like anyone else, are human beings and have among the ranks about the same distributions of honest, crooked, nice, and bigoted people as any other.

But we have simply got to try to stop perpetuating irrational fear, which necessarily is going to continue the divide among our communities that, for better or for worse, have to figure out a way to live together.

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