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On December 2, Fox News’ conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly cherry-picked data cited in an earlier CJCJ blog post to produce a slew of misleading and muddled comments on race and police shootings: 

In the past 50 years, the rate of black Americans killed by police has dropped 70 percent. In 2012, 123 African-Americans were shot dead by police. There are currently more than 43 million blacks living in the U.S.A. Same year, 326 whites were killed by police bullets. Those are the latest stats available. In 2013, blacks committed 5,375 murders in America; whites committed 4,396. Whites comprise 63 percent of the population; blacks 13 percent. So, anyone — anyone thinking clearly can see that the homicide rate among blacks way out of proportion thus, the police intrusion into black precincts. Since, in a whopping 90 percent of black homicides, the dead person is another black or the offender himself.

Though citing CJCJ as his source, O’Reilly fails to note the date-driven conclusion of the post: Disproportionate killings of black people by cops is very real. 

Media watchdog Politifact branded O’Reilly’s commentary as mostly false,” noting that official statistics, whether collected by the FBI (which tabulated 426 law enforcement killings in 2012 from police agency reporting) or by the Centers for Disease Control (which tabulated 502 based on coroner filings), understate justifiable killings” by police. But in one sense, O’Reilly is sadly right — 127 police killings (121 shootings, six by other means) of African Americans in 2012 constitute only a small fraction of the 16,947 homicides and legal interventions (killings by law enforcement) across the United States that year — 8,139 victimizing African Americans. Even if the data are underreported, American civilians kill each other far more than cops do.

The majority of police killings are justifiable” because the assailant (from a rooftop sniper to a knife-wielding domestic attacker) was armed and presented imminent lethal danger. What is in dispute is the unknown fraction of police killings that are not justifiable: Those involving unarmed suspects posing no immediate lethal danger, such as Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, and (by the best evidence) Michael Brown — all black. If unjustifiable police homicides could be delineated, the racial disparity could widen considerably.

Police encounters even with armed whites rarely seem to end in shootings. For example, federal officers did not open fire on armed white vigilantes surrounding outlaw Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in a situation that was much more immediately threatening than those presented in the above cases. 

O’Reilly’s most troubling implication (one conservatives commonly cite) is that because African Americans commit murder at rates higher than Whites, a higher level of police intrusion into black precincts” (and consequent shootings of blacks) is to be expected. That sentiment seems to accept that police relationships with black prople, unlike white, are necessarily antagonistic: more contacts, more shootings. This faulty conclusion results from selective statistical bigotry, discussed elsewhere.

The larger objection to O’Reilly’s point is that police are professional agents of the state obligated to treat all citizens equally, not shoot more black people because, statistically, other black people commit more murders. That’s analogous to saying that because, statistically, older white men (O’Reilly’s demographic) are far more likely to lethally abuse illegal drugs than other populations, police (and black neighborhood vigilantes) would be justified in stopping, frisking, detaining, and forcibly drug-testing white men over age 35 — confrontations that would draw outraged objections from conservatives and, quite likely, some shootings.

O’Reilly correctly points out that police killings of African Americans have declined sharply over the last half century. Studying what led to this decline offers valuable lessons for how today’s racial discrepancies can be reduced. But the larger reality driving recent protests is that no amount of stereotyping, statistical or otherwise, can justify the law enforcement killing of an unarmed individual whose situation can be managed non-lethally — and unjustified police killings, today as yesterday, overwhelmingly victimize black men.