Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 6 of 9)

The Justice System; Police Brutality

I will mostly bypass now the important issue of possible systemic racism in the in administration of justice itself. I mean charging, convicting and sentencing, which may or may not each involve a systematic (systematic) racial component. Here again, I think the relevant research exists and it has not caught my attention. (But, I have to wonder why.) It’s possible that black suspects are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted and sentenced more heavily that whites suspected of similar trespasses.

If I were to look actively into the matter, however, I would explore the possibility that black suspects are less likely to be charged and convicted than whites, and also receive lighter sentences for equivalent crimes. This hunch is based on the recognition that most black crime is probably black on black. In this scenario lies a possible form of systemic discrimination because it treats crimes against black citizens as less severe or less significant than crimes against whites.

Finally, if I were initiating a research project about this today, I would pay special attention to the formal obstacles, including union rules, that may interfere with the prosecution of police officers suspected of lawbreaking, including homicide. If these obstacles were shown to be erected especially to impede action against white officers, I would consider them instances of systemic racism. If they were not, I would still pay attention because black men (specifically) are more likely than whites to die at the hands of police. Over a lifetime, according to a study recently published in the serious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than are white men in the course of their lifetime. (Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States, by Age, Race, Ethnicity and Sex” 2019.) The denial of justice implicit in the reluctance to prosecute law breaking members of the police could (could) be an important form of systemic racism.

Racism in Policing

First, a reminder: As I stated above, I believe there exists a high degree of police brutality in America. But, it’s not my topic here. The only questions on my mind now are these: What’s the racial component? Is it “systemic”? If there is no racial component, it’s not likely systemic racism is at work. If there is racism and it’s personal, there is no reason to call is “systemic” racism except falsely and presumptuously to sound scientific.

In May-June 2020, protesters echoed the media (or vice-versa) to give the impression that police shootings of black Americans of holocaust dimensions was taking place. The view seemed to have been widely shared based on (the same) media reports, including interviews of protesters. Some quantitative frameworking is in order here.

Frequency of homicide in general, of African Americans, particularly Homicide is in fact a fairly rare cause of death in America contrary to a widespread impression. In 2018, 14,000 Americans died of homicide. (Number of murder victims in the United States in 2018, by race/ethnicity and gender.) Applied to the whole American population, that’s a death rate so small many phone calculators can hardly handle it. Of 1,000 people who did die in the United States in 2018, only about five died of any kind of homicide. Contrary to a widespread impression, being killed by anyone, for any reason is rare today. This probability has been in decline for fifty years. The decline may be owed to demographics – an aging population – or to more effective policing, or to both. This is all to put any classification of homicides in perspective.

Of these rare homicide deaths, a little over half were of African Americans in 2018. But African Americans make up only about 13 to 16% of the population, maximum (“The Black Alone Population of the US: 2019.” – US Bureau of the Census). Like everyone else, black Americans seldom die of homicide but they die of it disproportionately, about three times more than average.

Who is Killing Black Americans?

There were 8836 homicides in 2016 where race of both first victim and perpetrator were known (This is a smaller number than used above because it’s less inclusive. No big drop in homicides is denoted here) About half were killings of blacks by blacks; about 18 % were killings of whites also by blacks. Whites killed about 80% of white victims. Black victims of white killers accounted for 4% of all homicide victims, and less than 10% of all black victims. Of course, the latter number must include all black victims of white police officers, including legally legitimate homicides. (I am assuming that black victims of black police officers are a small enough number to be ignored here for the moment.) This gives us a first outer limit of police killings of African Americans.

A widespread narrative exists nevertheless that claims an unceasing massacre of black citizens by white policemen. A close relative of the victim George Floyd thus declared on PBS radio on 6/17/20, that there is an “open season killing of black people…” It seems that he meant police killing of black people.

The reality is different. However unpopular in some quarters, however contrary to the visual pseudo-reality on our screens, the answer to the question “Who is killing black Americans?” is: “black Americans.” In 2016, about 90% of black homicide victims where race was known were killed by blacks. If there is a wholesale massacre of African American citizens on our streets, it’s akin to a collective self- massacre. It dwarfs all police killings of African Americans, of course. Anecdotal evidence seldom contradicts this assertion. Thus, black columnist Jason Riley reported in the WSJ of 6/10/20 that there were 492 homicides in Chicago last year (of all by all) of which only three involved police. That last figure did not distinguish between unjustified killings and legally otherwise justified killings.

Such small numbers do not detract from the idea that any police killing of civilians is especially disturbing and worrisome. There is a special reason to be concerned when those who carry the legitimate state monopoly of violence kill those they are sworn to protect. But, again, my topic is not police brutality but systemic racism. In this specific connection, the comparative rarity of police killings does not properly address the possibility that police disproportionately, or preferentially kill African Americans. I deal with this issue below. (Figures from the last four paragraphs except if otherwise specified are from: Easy Access to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980-2016.)

Are blacks more likely to be shot dead during a police encounter than whites?

The evidence, including a systematic survey by a black Harvard economist as well as a one-city Justice Department study is that police are no more likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects. (Both cited by Heather MacDonald in the WSJ of 6/3/20; those are not controversial studies. For a more recent account, see: Fryer, Roland G. Jr: “What the Data Say About Police.” WSJ, 6/23/20 ) This narrative is contrary to current popular wisdom – or un-wisdom – but it’s the best evidence we have. Everything else is fiction or downright bad reasoning. (“Police hate blacks. Those who kill blacks do so because they hate them. Police must kill blacks more than they kill others.”) Note that it would take only one good study to overturn the assertion that police are not more likely to kill blacks than they are to kill whites. The absence of such a study is evidence of sorts given the interest this question raises in much of the population and in academia. Some argue however that this apparent equality of deadly treatment is the result of a sort of numerical visual illusion. I take up this matter below.

[Editor’s note: you can Part 5 here, or the whole essay here.]

Do we want criminals to ‘feel terror at the thought of committing crimes’?

Last week, Priti Patel, the new British Home Secretary, provoked a media stir when she announced that she thought the criminal justice system should aim to strike fear into the heart of criminals. Critics combined her new interview with her previous support for the death penalty, banned in the mainline UK since 1965, to suggest that Patel represents a draconian and reactionary turn in British law enforcement.

Then a couple of days ago, a YouGov survey showed, that 72 per cent of the British public agreed with her. Media commentators can forget quite how high support is for law and order among ordinary citizens. Support for the death penalty itself still attracts almost half of the population.

Are the public right? The meat of the Government’s new policy is an increase in the number of police officers; this at a time of increasing violent crime and concerns about rising knife crime in London. On that front, the evidence points in Patel’s favour. More police often reduce crime and do so through a variety of mechanisms, including situational deterrence (for example, patrolling in high-crime areas) as well as increasing detection rates. There is general agreement that increasing the certainty of apprehension contributes to deterrence.

What about punishment severity? There the evidence is decidedly more mixed. There is remarkably little evidence, for example, that the death penalty deters crimes like murder more than an appropriate prison sentence.  Using a new data set of sentencing practice in all police force areas in England and Wales, myself and some great colleagues at the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at the University of Birmingham produced a study just printed last month: ‘Alternatives to Custody’. We compared the way a previous year’s sentencing influenced the subsequent year’s recorded crime.

What we found was that for property crime, our largest category, and robbery, community sentences generally reduced crime more than prison. In fact, one of our models suggested increased use of prison caused subsequent crime to go up. On the other hand, prison seemed to work (and was the only thing that worked) to reduce violent crime and sexual offences. (We summarised our results for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.)

The lesson that we draw is that deterrence isn’t an overwhelming explanation of the impact of sentencing. Harsher sentencing probably works to deter some offenders. But at the same time carrying out punishments can have criminogenic effects. Experience of prison often makes convicts less employable and can effectively socialise them into having an enduring criminal identity. Of course, many offenders in the real-world are not particularly well informed about the criminal justice system. They may also have less self-control than a typical member of the public. So information about an increased penalty for a crime may never effectively filter into the deliberation and reflection of some offenders until they are sentenced, at which point you get the high financial and social costs of prison kicking in.

Getting caught by the police, perhaps on a few occasions,  is a more immediate sign to an offender that their behaviour is unlikely to pay off in the long-term. What does this mean for Patel? It suggests that fear of the consequences can play a role, but what we really need is graduated sanctions, avoiding prison when possible. This gives offenders plenty of options to exit a criminal career path. Relying on terror, by contrast, can lead to a large prison population producing a lot of stigmatized and harmed individuals who quite possibly will re-offend when they are released.