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Black Lives, Blue Lives: truth on both sides

As originally published by Christian Science Monitor

As with many contentious topics, the issues of police brutality and racial profiling have people drawing sides. We need to be cognizant that the information we get – whether from experts, online searches, our friends, or the media – often comes with a left or right bias.

This makes it difficult to objectively evaluate the facts. Even with the best intentions, bias impacts the way we see things, even how we report facts. Studies show that people are willing to disregard any problematic facts thatchallenge their political ideology.

One-sided analysis doesn’t lead us to the truth. We must look at issues from multiple vantage points to truly see the whole picture.

A typical argument about police bias might go as follows:

“Blacks are targeted by police because they commit more violent crimes.”

“The treatment of blacks by police is uneven and brutal due to racism.”

Which side do you choose?

Evidence supports both views. Acknowledging one doesn’t diminish the other. In fact, finding a resolution to this issue is impossible without accepting the truth in both these statements.


Violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks

According to the FBI, African Americans perpetrated almost 40% of violent crimes in 2013 (the most recent data available) though they are just 13% of the population.


What’s the best way to interpret the facts? Depends who you ask

The hunt for objective statistics on police bias is a dizzying task. Depending on the source of information and the way it’s interpreted, it’s possible to confirm just about any premise one seeks to find.

For example, white people make up roughly 62% of the U.S. population. They are about 49% of those killed by police officers. African Americans account for 13% of the population and are 24% of those fatally shot and killed by the police. Using this exact same data, two media sources made two seemingly opposing points. The liberal Washington Post concluded that “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.” The conservative Wire website emphasized that “cops killed nearly twice as many whites as blacks in 2015.”

What’s the most appropriate way to interpret these statistics?

As Heather MacDonald points out in the Wall Street Journal, “A concentration of criminal violence in minority communities means that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force.”

On the other hand, the Post quotes a study that found that about 13 percent of blacks fatally shot by police since January 2015 were unarmed, compared with 7 percent of white shooting victims. Black individuals shot and killed by police were also found to be less likely to have been attacking police officers than the whites fatally shot by police.


Data confirms racist behavior

It’s a valid point that blacks commit a proportionally larger amount of crimes, so they will naturally be victims of a proportionally larger number of police shootings. But this does not negate the fact that racism is apparent in police behavior.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Louisville, says research suggests police exhibit “shooter bias,” perceiving blacks to be a greater threat than non-blacks. Research subjects were found to be more likely to misinterpret a weapon if they were first shown a picture of a black face. ”We’re taking in so much information,” Nix explained, “we use mental short cuts to try to make sense of the world around us.”

Is this bias justified? It depends how you interpret the data. Between 2004 and 2013, U.S. police officers were killed by 289 white and 242 black assailants. In sheer numbers, more policemen were killed by whites. But proportional to their percentage of the population, blacks murder cops much more frequently.

It’s important to note that bias against blacks isn’t just restricted to white officers. A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on the misperception that they were armed.

Besides shooting deaths, bias has been evident in other ways. A recent study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr. analyzed police interactions with blacks, whites and Hispanics in ten cities. Fryer found that “blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force, such as being grabbed, pushed into a wall or onto the ground, or handcuffed, with police than whites.”

North Carolina was the first U.S. state to mandate police-stop data collection in 2002. Based on a University of North Carolina study analyzing over 18 million traffic stops, the disparity between blacks and whites has risen over time.  In 2002, black men were 70% more likely to be searched than white men. By 2013, this difference was over 140%. (Interestingly, black women and white women were about equally likely to be searched, cited, or arrested during traffic stops.)

Citing “probable cause” (i.e. “reasonably reliable information to suspect there is a fair probability that a person has committed a crime, or that a search will reveal contraband or evidence”), North Carolina officers were 250% more likely to search black men than white men in 2013, despite that police were consistently more likely to find contraband with white males than with black males.


Factors lead to fear and suspicion

Facts show that blacks perpetrate violent crime, including the murder of police officers, at a much higher rate than whites. These statistics are often downplayed by progressive organizations and news sources. Data also supports that racial bias exists in the police force, both subconsciously and consciously. The conservative media tends to omit this evidence in discussion about police brutality.

Fear and suspicion has resulted in paranoia on both sides.

“We can conclude that blacks in North Carolina appear to have good reasons to be mistrustful of the police, and that these trends appear to be growing over time,” concludes North Carolina researchers.

The National Institute of Justice has reached the same conclusion. They add, “Researchers have been working to figure out how much [racial] disparity is because of discrimination and how much is due to other factors, but untangling these other factors is challenging.”

When we are willing to reassess our assumptions and approach these issues with frank discussion, the more likely we are to work together towards the best resolution.


Are journalists thinking freely?

While we fully expect partisan opinions from our politicians, we often don’t think about how our views are subtly manipulated by other influences as well.

As I wrote in my previous post, the way in which information is presented to us influences our opinions and shapes how we think about things.

The average American goes to his favorite news service to interpret current events for him. That’s fine, provided he understands that it’s not possible to attain a completely objective and fair presentation of the facts from any one source.

With the barrage of information out there, we want to know we have reputable sources to rely upon for our news. Ideally there would be one source that presented a balanced account from multiple points of view. But on the contrary, today’s news outlets helps perpetuate the splintering of American opinion.  Why? It’s an interesting dilemma.

Back at the advent of television, the broadcast spectrum allowed for only a few channels. Networks, if they wanted to compete, needed to attract a diverse audience and couldn’t afford to cater to just conservative or liberal viewers.

Now of course we have a plethora of cable, satellite and Internet options at our disposal. News sources today vie for their own particular ‘niche’ of consumers who think in a certain way. This has encouraged journalists to break free from the restrictions of impartiality, and present stories in a subjective manner to appeal to a specific audience. News and editorial pieces have blurred to the point to where it’s now difficult to distinguish the opinions from the reporting.

In 2005 comedian and political pundit Stephen Colbert created the term “truthy” to satirize the use of emotional appeal as fact. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” says Colbert. “But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist…What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?”

This shift in news reporting has happened slowly over a period of several decades. Imbalanced perspectives are often presented so insidiously that the change in reporting may not be obvious to the average viewer.

When I was in college studying journalism in the early 1980’s, students were trained to produce a story in an inverted pyramid containing the simple who, what, where, when and why without a trace of editorializing or embellishment.

When I grew tired of having any dramatic description or sentiment slashed from my articles, I switched my career path to advertising, which allowed me to use my creativity to persuade people to think a certain way. Because I haven’t been a part of the reporting world all these years, I still look at news stories with a classic eye, wanting to pull out the red pen and deleting all that is subjective and misleading.

Which stories are selected to run is just as important as how the stories are presented. For example, in a USA Today series on gun control, nearly every story was written from the viewpoint of those who supported stricter gun laws. The only gun advocates featured were a manufacturer whose livelihood depended upon guns and those who shot for sport.

Is profit and fun the only rationale for opposing stricter gun laws?

A more balanced and informative series might also include pieces such as these:

·         an article discussing the rapid rise in crime and murder in Chicago, despite the most restrictive gun laws in the country, even though crime has decreased in other parts of the nation with fewer restrictions,

·         a report quoting the results of “most comprehensive survey ever” of police officers, in which 71%  believed that  a federal ban on semi-automatics would have no effect on reducing violent crime, and more than 20% believed a ban would actually have a negative effect on reducing violent crime.

When we are presented with facts from all sides of an issue, we can come to our own more informed conclusions.

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