Only days after the Ferguson grand jury non-indictment, a second decision not to indict a police officer in the killing of Eric Garner was announced.

This decision was far more troubling to some, because unlike the Ferguson case a video captured the whole incident, and demonstrated clearly that the officer whose chokehold killed Garner was in no visible danger during the account.

As in many other instances, the decision provoked different reactions from those of different political persuasions, but with a decidedly clearer trend toward outrage on both sides.

Here is Jon Stewart’s take:


And Bill O’Reilly’s:

While both seemed outraged by the event, Stuart is clearly more convinced of the injustice in the Grand Jury’s decision.

Broadening the point beyond this specific incident, O’Reilly has a discussion with talk show host Tavis Smiley where they debate whether the string of such recent incidents constitute an epidemic. O’Reilly commented that “I think this would have happened to a white guy doing the same thing. I don’t think it had to do with skin color…” and then goes on to offer some statistics. O’Reilly states that 123 blacks were killed by police gunfire in 2012, out of a population of 43 million, while during the same year 326 whites were killed by police gunfire.

Earlier that week, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof commented that black men are 21 times more likely to be killed than white men. CNN ran this fact checking piece to explain how both of these dramatically different statistics might actually be accurate.

The article cites problems with gathering data (which is not currently mandatory for all police), different sources for the data, and an outsized prevalence of black deaths in the 15-19 year old range Kristof focused on as the main reasons for these disparities.

With an issue this complicated, based largely on self reported data and data from multiple sources, political leanings can lead to the cherry picking of statistics that support a perspective. Looking at a few people who have weighed in with their own set of facts demonstrates this tendency. Compare Kristof to O’Reilly or Giuliani.

So the question remains, where can we look for evidence of the scale of this problem?

One place to look is at the problem in the United States independent of race. Here there seems to be less to argue about. This article from the Economist called Trigger Happy compares police shootings in the US to other countries. It states “In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police” and then goes on to point out:

“Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.”

According to a Wikipedia list compiling shooting deaths by police in Canada in 2012, that country had a total of 6.

This NBC news article mentions that “German police officers fired a total of 85 bullets in 2011, 49 of which were warning shots… killing six and injuring 15.”

These are quite different numbers even when adjusting for the larger population of the United States. The US clearly has far more police shooting deaths than many similar countries and the method for gathering data on these shootings leaves many to think numbers are underreported and might be even worse and data on deaths by skin color do not seem to be consistent enough to paint a clear picture.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the increased militarization of the police and its role in shooting deaths and race. More than a few people have suggested police shoot first and ask questions later, especially when it comes to black men. A study conducted by Joshua Cornell and others at the University of Chicago suggests that in split second decisions police do indeed show a bias toward assuming danger from black suspects over white ones in the same situation. It should be noted though that these biases as well as the ability to accurately assess threats from white and black suspects tended to be more accurate by the police than the general public.

So how do we make sense of all this information? How do we get to the heart of the matter, which is a growing narrative believed by many that police kill a disproportionately large number of black men because of their skin color, and that these officers are then able to escape legal consequences because the justice system doesn’t value black lives?

Sadly, this narrative is probably impossible to prove or disprove conclusively. Each instance where a white cop kills a black man tends to polarize people into their previously held narratives. We see what we expect to see, rather than what is. The jury of public opinion doesn’t have the benefit of being an eyewitness to the killing and even in the rare case where a video is available, as in the tragic death of Eric Garner, we cannot know for sure how race played into the mindset of the officer as he himself may not fully understand it. Additionally the court system is opaque and unfamiliar to many, leaving people to judge the outcome based largely on what the media presents.

If we zoom out from the individual stories to the statistics, we see an equally messy story, where unreliable and insufficient data mix with a complex number of societal factors to paint a confusing picture.

However, this is not to say we cannot reach any conclusions. Data does exist to show unconscious biases surrounding race and the perception of criminal activity and the effect of these perceptions on split second threat assessments. While the self-reported data on police shootings is incomplete and likely inaccurate, at least some figures suggest an outsized number of black shooting deaths, while a much larger body of evidence suggests increased harassment and suspicion of non-white citizens. Race is not the only factor, and is often an unconscious bias, but it seems to play a role in how police do their jobs.

While a narrative that suggests police kill black men with blatant disregard, or that black lives do not matter, might feel true in light of the footage or stories from specific tragic deaths, the data suggests a much more nuanced picture.

We live in a society where race strongly affects all of our perceptions of criminality and justice. These perceptions also are affected by things such as media exposure, our personal histories, and political ideology – factors that intertwine with one another and many others in complex ways. These perceptions can also escalate hostilities between police and minority communities, which can in turn create further bias perceptions. Police face dangerous split second decisions where these biases can lead to an increased likelihood to use deadly force against black men. However until reporting by all police departments is mandatory we cannot do an effective analysis on the extent of the problem. Fortunately, measures aimed at correcting this bias, such as training people to associate black men with attributes like safety, show promise.

One story that emerges clearly from the data we do have, tells us that police in the United States shoot and kill far more people of all colors than do police in countries like Canada, Germany, and England. When those deaths occur, police officers are rarely charged for a crime. Examining this phenomenon, working to make sure all lives of all colors matter, and figuring out how police can protect themselves without using excessive force, is a daunting but important challenge.