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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: The complex data of lethal force

A demonstrator protests the fatal police shooting of

A demonstrator protests the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn, on April 11, 2021. Credit: The Washington Post/Joshua Lott

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on charges of murdering George Floyd has once again trained the spotlight on painful issues of race, policing, and violence — even as new data show just how complicated and fraught those issues are.

The trial itself has heightened tensions, with many fearing unrest if Chauvin is convicted of something less than murder and with the defense seeking to blame Floyd’s death on drug use. It seems clear that whatever role medical issues may have played in Floyd’s death, the immediate cause was being pinned down by Chauvin and his partners — compounded by failure to render aid.

Most discussions assume that this callous brutality demonstrates the extent to which systemic racism is built into policing. Yet some commentators say reality is more complicated: five years ago, a mentally ill white man, Tony Timpa, suffocated while pinned down by five Dallas cops who were captured on bodycam mocking his cries for help — and who avoided criminal or civil liability.

Studies by scholars such as Harvard economist Roland Fryer show that Blacks are clearly more likely to experience physical abuse during police stops and arrests. (This may be reflected in the shameful treatment of Caron Nazario, the Black and Latino Army lieutenant who was pepper-sprayed by Virginia police after a minor traffic stop.) The pattern for lethal force is far more complicated. The racial disparities reflect many factors; when whites are arrested or detained, they are no less likely to be fatally shot. The focus on Black victims is understandable given our racial history; but it may also create the distorted perception that virtually all of those who die in custody are black.

Statistics point to other complexities. Violent crime, on the rise after years of decline, affects minorities most. In New York City last year, shootings nearly doubled from 2019; 96% of the victims were Black or Hispanic. Homicides are sharply up as well — by 44%.

Some of the surge is undoubtedly due to the stresses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But a new study suggests another disturbing pattern. The study's researcher, University of Massachusetts-Amherst scholar Travis Campbell, found that while cities and towns that experienced Black Lives Matter protests from 2014 to 2019 saw killings by law enforcement decline, they also experienced a rise in murders. The drop in police homicides saved about 300 lives; the spike in murders took 1,000 to 6,000.

Interpreting these data requires caution; but less aggressive law enforcement, police/community tensions, and protest-related mayhem could all be contributing factors. If so, the current surge in crime may be at least partly the effect of the past summer’s protests and riots across America — and Black lives are most at stake.

The answer, assuredly, is not to ignore police brutality and abuse. More legal accountability and other curbs on excessive force are essential. But we must remember that policing is an essential societal function, and fears of breakdown of public order are not just conservative paranoia.

In Minneapolis, new rioting in response to the police shooting of Daunte Wright, 20, broke out over the weekend and continued on Tuesday as the officer who killed him and the police chief resigned. The anger and frustration are understandable; but it’s almost entirely Black-owned businesses that were hit.

In fighting for justice, the first principle, as in medicine, should be to do no harm.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.