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After responding to a report of vandalism in a Sacramento neighborhood, two police officers fired 20 shots at Stephon Clark. Clark, who was in his grandmother’s backyard, was struck by eight bullets and died. The officers claim that Clark lunged at them and that they mistook his cell phone for a gun. For some, this is yet another bloody thread in a pattern of police violence against minorities. For others, it is just another isolated incident—regrettable, to be sure, but hardly part of a pattern.
Naturally enough, controversial events are rather like the Rorschach test: people see, it is said, what patterns or lack of patterns their minds impose. These might (or might not) match reality. For example, those who fail to see a pattern in police shootings might clearly “see” a pattern of refugees and terrorism, regardless of the actual numbers. Likewise, a person might “see” the opposite. This is why statistical analysis is rather important. While statistical data is also subject to interpretation and abuse, it tends to be the most objective manner of finding or disproving alleged patterns of events. This is not to say that statistical analysis can reliably overcome ideology: the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence (rejecting statistical evidence in favor of a story that runs counter to the evidence) shows how statistics can fail to convince in the face of bias.
Even when statistical data is used, it is still filtered through the lens of values. In the case of police violence against black men, the National Review asserts that it is rare. However, Vox notes that a disproportionate number of black men are killed by the police. Interestingly enough, both of these claims can be true: the police could rarely kill black men, yet kill them at a disproportionate level. Naturally, what counts as rare can be a matter of considerable dispute. What is disproportionate or not would seem less controversial; it can be defined in terms of the makeup of the population. However, this can also be a matter of contention—one stock reply to the claim that blacks are disproportionately killed by the police is that blacks commit more crime and hence the killing is thus proportional.
For regular readers of my work, it should be no surprise that I agree that the use of violence against blacks is disproportionate and I agree with the data that shows unarmed minorities are more likely to be killed by the police than unarmed whites. I also agree that police violence is relatively rare, at least in proportion to death by other causes (adjusting for age and other such factors). Roughly put, I would venture that a black man is not likely to be killed by the police, but he is more likely to be killed than a white man even if unarmed. This does show the existence of a problem involving race: while the police should rarely be killing people, the rate of killing should be proportionate regarding the relevant factors, such as whether the person is unarmed or not.
There have been various attempts to account for these facts. Some involve claims of systematic racism, others involve the claim that people are subconsciously racist. Some, of course, deny there is even a real problem. While systemic racism has been on the decline in the United States (no one can rationally deny that it is an historical fact), it has not been eliminated. There is also the claim that everyone suffers from subconscious racism. As someone who teaches critical thinking, I can attest to the existence of cognitive biases and it seems quite reasonable to think that people are infected with a wide range of stereotypes and that these include stereotypes about race. These stereotypes are also fed and watered by certain folks in the media, thus increasing their intensity and spread in the population. As such, it is not surprising that officers who shoot blacks appeal to the defense that they were afraid for their lives. This narrative has been challenged on the grounds that in many cases the police had no reason to be afraid. This challenge is certainly appealing, but it is worth noting that fear is often irrational: people can be afraid when there is no good reason to be afraid. That is, their perception of a threat is disproportionate to the actual danger.
A point worth making is, of course, that police should be selected and trained so they are not so easily ruled by fear. After all, it should not be a surprise that police will get into scary situations and will need to make rational judgments. After all, normal citizens are held to strict standards regarding when they can legitimately shoot someone. For example, if I killed my next-door neighbor’s grandson in their backyard because I was “scared”, I would presumably be charged with a crime—even if vandalism had been reported in the area. Then again, Florida does have some very “generous” stand-your-ground laws. I now turn to the matter of Stephon Clark and the fact that he was shot in the back.
Dr. Bennet Omalu conducted an autopsy of Stephon Clark and found that Clark had been struck by eight bullets, seven of which were potentially fatal shots (based on the location and damage of the injury). Media attention has, of course, focused on the fact that most of the bullets struck him in the back. Dr. Omalu did note that the first bullet struck Clark in the side and probably caused him to turn away from the officers so that the other shots struck him in the back. This is consistent with the officers’ claim that Clark was facing them. As such, while the police did shoot Clark in the back, this seems to be because the initial shot turned him rather than the police simply shooting him in the back. If Dr. Omalu is right, then this is clearly relevant to the assessment of how the officers acted—it is one thing to shoot someone in the front (or side) and quite another to shoot a person in the back. That said, even if the officers shot Clark as he faced them, the other facts are quite concerning.
One point of concern is that the officers were on a vandalism call and not responding to a violent crime. While a vandal could turn violent, the police should have approached the situation proportionally while, of course, being prepared to respond to an escalation. Another point of concern is that the police fired 20 times at Stephon Clark because, they allege, they thought he had a gun. In the video, the officers rush into the backyard, yell at Stephon Clark to show his hands and then almost instantly start firing. While the officers were no doubt worried about coming under fire, Stephon Clark was no doubt shocked by the sudden appearance of the officers and almost certainly froze for a second. He did not, one would think, have any chance to respond before the police started shooting. Since the police had no reason to believe that there was an armed threat in the area, their response seems unjustified.
One obvious counter would be to advance a counterfactual: what if the police had surprised an armed suspect in the backyard and delayed firing to allow them the chance to respond to their challenge? If the suspect shot an officer, then the narrative would presumably be that waiting to confirm that the suspect is armed and has a hostile intent puts police at needless risk. Naturally, it can be responded that there is a moral duty to take that slight risk to verify an armed, hostile suspect. As noted above, if a civilian killed a neighbor’s grandson in a similar situation, they would rightly be regarded as morally irresponsible and would probably face criminal charges.
This raises the broader moral issue of the extent to which police must take a risk to avoid killing innocent civilians by confirming whether they are engaging armed hostiles or unarmed innocents. On the face of it, it seems eminently reasonable to take at least some risk—especially in situations in which they have no reason to think they will be facing armed hostiles. This is not just because they are police, but a key part of basic gun ethics. After all, all my firearm training has emphasized repeatedly the importance of not shooting unless one knows what they are shooting and the moral consequences of pulling the trigger. Part of the moral concern is, of course, that some claim the police are far less inclined to take that risk when facing minorities.
In closing, it must be noted that the death of Stephon Clark is a single incident and thus an anecdote in a sea of data. However, the data does seem to indicate that the police are more likely to kill unarmed minorities than unarmed whites and that the police use of force against minorities is disproportionate. As such, while appealing to Stephon Clark’s case would be to appeal to an anecdote, it is a bloody illustration of the statistical data.