Police recklessness, not racism.

James Alan Fox

August 9, 2015


Ferguson shooting a year ago was just the first in a disturbing string of deaths.

On Sunday, it has been a year since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The incident set off a firestorm of protests and civil unrest, including violent confrontations between the police and black demonstrators in a once obscure suburb of St. Louis.

Of course, the Ferguson shooting was just the first in a disturbing string of widely publicized deaths of black citizens while being stopped by the police or in custody, giving rise to the rallying cry, "Black Lives Matter."  Meanwhile, politicians, the press and the general public wanted to know: What's the matter with cops today?

Has the behavior of the police really changed regarding the use of lethal force, as many citizens contend? Are cops more inclined to shoot first and investigate later, especially during encounters with black citizens, as some activists claim?

Based on available FBI data, the number of suspected felons killed by law enforcement officers during the commission of a crime or while attempting to flee has increased by about 50% since 2000. But the rate of violent crime has continued to decline, which fails to explain the upturn in deadly force.

The surprising and important truth about the trend in use of deadly force is that the increase involving whites killed by the police has outpaced that of black victims. From 2000 to 2013, the number of whites killed by the police increased 57%, while the number of blacks killed by the police increased 42%. Could it be that public indignation when white cops kill blacks is greater than when they kill whites? Are we more critical of certain white-on-black police encounters by presuming racism as a contributing factor rather than seeing the matter as a few police officers doing their job recklessly?
These questions are not meant to serve as a blanket apology for rogue cops. There is nothing, for example, that would justify the actions of the white North Charleston, S.C.police officer who is charged with murder for allegedly firing off eight rounds and killing an unarmed 50-year-old black father of four, as he ran from the officer.

That the North Charleston shooting and several other questionable police encounters were captured on video has certainly magnified the sense of outrage. Seeing is believing and sometimes indicting.

Now is not the first time that fatal shootings by the police have risen. From the mid-1980s to the early-1990s, the number of suspected felons gunned down by the policerose sharply, including a twofold increase in the number of blacks killed.

However, that was an era when violent crime rates were also spiraling out of control. Americans closed their eyes to the sometimes dubious actions of the police, being far more concerned about eradicating the growing scourge of lawlessness.

During the crime surge, the police had a broad mandate: resolve the crisis in virtually whatever way possible. The ends justified the means. But now that crime rates are low, as low as they have been for decades, the public is questioning the means.

Actually, the police were not the greatest threat to black citizens and the tranquility of their neighborhoods during the late-80s crime wave. At that time, blacks were only 12%of the U.S. population, yet constituted nearly half of the nation's homicide victims. Moreover, well over 90% of these black homicide victims were slain by members of their own race. Black lives do indeed matter, but not just when they are taken by officers in blue.

In the year since the Ferguson shooting, lawmakers around the country have filed legislation out of mounting concern for cops who are too quick on the trigger, including mandates for better training of recruits, expanded use of dashboard and body cameras, and reductions in the deployment of military-style equipment. Whatever comes of these initiatives, let them be guided by sound judgment and not fiery race-based slogans.


James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.