The "Unarmed" and the Unnamed

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Heather MacDonald looks behind the numbers from a Washington Post database that commentators have used to justify charges that police are "gunning down unarmed blacks out of implicit bias." For example, MacDonald finds that categorizing many of those shot as "unarmed" is misleading:

[T]he numbers don't tell the whole story. It is worth looking at the specific cases included in the Post's unarmed victim classification in some detail, since that category is the most politically explosive. The "unarmed" label is literally accurate, but it frequently fails to convey highly-charged policing situations. In a number of cases, if the victim ended up being unarmed, it was certainly not for lack of trying. At least five black victims had reportedly tried to grab the officer's gun, or had been beating the cop with his own equipment. Some were shot from an accidental discharge triggered by their own assault on the officer. And two individuals included in the Post's "unarmed black victims" category were struck by stray bullets aimed at someone else in justified cop shootings. If the victims were not the intended targets, then racism could have played no role in their deaths. [bold added]
Note that the cases mentioned in the bolded passage can be legally regarded as assault with a deadly weapon:
[S]ome normal, everyday objects can legally be considered deadly weapons depending on the way they're used (such as threatening another person with injury). For example, these items are commonly used in cases involving assault with a deadly weapon:
  • Sticks or pipes
  • Wrenches
  • Hammers and other hand tools
  • Clothing (such as belts)
  • Sharp objects
So, just to start with, much of the frenzy the press keep fomenting against the police is based on classifying as "unarmed victims" individuals who are actually armed -- and accidental deaths as victims of racism. I agree with MacDonald that the aftermath of the Ferguson shootings (after which the Post started collecting this data) showed a need for police (and municipal government) reform. That said, basing such calls on arguably manipulated data risks discrediting the whole effort.

Worse still, as MacDonald argues later, the emphasis of the police reform effort on such dubious allegations of racial bias distracts from the very real problem of "black-on-black" crime:
While the nation was focused on the non-epidemic of racist police killings throughout 2015, the routine drive-by shootings in urban areas were taking their usual toll, including on children, to little national notice. In Cleveland, three children ages five and younger were killed in September. Five children were shot in Cleveland over the Fourth of July weekend. A seven-year-old boy was killed in Chicago that same weekend by a bullet intended for his father. In November, a nine-year-old in Chicago was lured into an alley and killed by his father's gang enemies; the alleged murderer was reportedly avenging the killing of his own 13-year-old brother in October. In August a nine-year-old girl was doing her homework on her mother's bed in Ferguson when a bullet shot into the house killed her. In Cincinnati in July, a four-year-old girl was shot in the head and a six-year-old girl was left paralyzed and partially blind from two separate drive-by shootings. A six-year-old boy was killed in a drive-by shooting on West Florissant Avenue in March in St. Louis, as protesters were again converging on the Ferguson Police Department to demand the resignation of the entire department. Ten children under the age of 10 were killed in Baltimore last year; 12 victims were between the age of 10 and 17. This is just a partial list of child victims. While the world knows who Michael Brown is, few people outside these children's immediate communities know their names. [links omitted, bold added]
It is appalling to say the least that "activists" professing concern about "black lives" can be so blithe about the facts concerning those lives and those charged with protecting them. As she rightly indicates in this timely and crucial piece, such indifference will ultimately undermine any efforts to improve policing in urban areas. I am glad to hear that MacDonald will discuss these issues in more detail in her forthcoming book, The War on Cops.

-- CAV

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