Ferguson: more irresponsible reporting

I just read the NYT editorial on the Ferguson riots. Without doing their own fact checking, they quoted a “grim report by ProPublica” which claims that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men.

That report is grim mostly for its failure to link original sources and its tenuous grasp on basic statistics. Let me attempt to improve on it. Their statement that young black males were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men relies on numbers which they do not cite a specific source for. “Federally collected date on fatal police shootings” is as close as we get. In my own research, I have used the CDC Fatal Injury Reports. From the ProPublica report:

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

I’ve found a few issues with this statement.

1. According to the CDC data, there have been 1,454 deaths caused by police between 2010 and 2012, not 1,217 (excluding females, the number is 1,402). Additionally, that is the number for all ages, so it seems irrelevant if we’re discussing deaths of those aged 15-19: that number is 81 (79 if we restrict to males).

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.42.22 AM2. It is unclear from the above statement whether they are comparing all blacks age 15 to 19 to white males of the same age range, or if they’re comparing only males to males. I assume the latter because it makes more sense. In that case, the CDC website shows that blacks were killed at a rate of 6.6 per million, and whites at 1.5 per million.

3. That would make the relative risk 4.4 times as high, not 21.

I’m not sure how they reached the 21x figure, but I attempted to re-create this figure by selecting “homicide and legal intervention” for males age 15-19, but that gave a relative rate of 8.4. Then I tried that again, with males of all ages, and that gave a relative rate of 7. I welcome the authors of the ProPublica report to point me to the original sources from which they derived their relative rate of 21.

Conclusions drawn from this report seem to be unvaryingly of one flavor: we suffer from a problem of racist policing. However, here’s another interesting chart from the CDC data

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.47.52 AM

It’s the same data, but including males of all ages. Here, the black males seem to face twice the risk of white males of death by cop. But if we glance down a bit further, white males are at about twice the risk of Asian males. If we are to conclude, like the NYT article did, that

“These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings”

Then I suppose we’ll have to conclude that police officers also see white men as expendable compared to Asian men. Or that the justice system was set up to benefit Asian men. Asian privilege? But if not, if these conclusions sound absurd, then might there also be room at the other end of the spectrum for more reasonable and less racially divisive conclusions? Any speculation you can give about why Asian men are at lower risk than white men should sound also reasonable when you apply it to whites versus blacks. Try that before saying what’s expected of you.

You could also read the grand jury testimony to get the full picture. Or, if you still believe this is an issue of racial privilege, I dare any white male to punch a police officer, attempt to take his gun, then charge him. I want proof that white privilege would have kept Michael Brown alive or seen to the prosecution of his killer. Show me.

Update: Looks like some people agree and ProPublica has had to print a defense of the original report.

Here’s an analysis similar to mine on a cop blog.

Now, if only NYT and other news sites would stop quoting the “21 times more likely” statistic as if it were the gospel truth.

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