How numbers can help form narratives.

As this post deals with a sensitive topic (the way African-Americans are treated by police), I would ask that you calmly read the whole thing.  There is a section of this post where I intentionally attempt to misdirect you with numbers to prove a point.

If you’ve been paying attention to United States news of late, then you know that there appears to be an epidemic of police violence going on.  It seems we cannot go two months without another shooting occurring, sparking protests, the odd riot, and questions about racism in America.

I noticed a while ago that the BBC had posted a piece on the frequency of these incidents.  One bit in particular by Sam Sinyangwe caught my eye:

He [Sam] counted 1,149 people of all ethnic groups killed by the police in 2014.

The youngest recorded was 12, the oldest 65. More than 100 were unarmed.

“Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that’s taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.

Now on their face, these are pretty damning statistics.  Over a thousand people dead – that’s like 3 people a day!  More than 100 of which were unarmed?!  Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, despite being 14% of the population?  Sounds like America is a seriously dangerous place.  Indeed, it’s so dangerous that we constantly see opinion pieces about people telling their kids to be scared/stay away from cops.

Does anyone actually hold a gun like this? Honest question.

But let’s step back for a moment.  There are a few things I find interesting about Sam’s analysis and the way he presents his statistics.  There’s gonna be a lot of numbers, bear with me for a bit.

I did a little bit of digging.  The population of America in 2014 was roughly 318 million.  Out of that, roughly 1,220,000 people were police officers (I say roughly, as that figure comes from a 2008 survey – the most recent information I could quickly find). 126 of those officers were killed in 2014.  Now, let’s do some math.

According to Google Calculator:

1149 (the number of police-induced fatalities) divided by [318,000,000-1,220,000] (citizens of the US – the cop population of the US) should give us the percentage of American citizens killed by police. It turns out that 0.00000362689 percent of America’s population were killed by police officers in 2014.  That’s 3 millionths of a percent (4 if you round up).

Now let’s find out the percentage of cops that die each year on the job: 126/1,200,000. This comes out to 0.00010327868 percent – or 1 ten-thousandth of the police population.  Out of the 126 that died, 86 were killed intentionally – which comes out to 0.0000704918 percent (or 7 ten-hundred-thousands, which is 7/10ths of the previous number).

If you’re good at fractions, you know that 7/100,000 is a lot bigger than 4/1,000,000.  How much bigger?  Well according to these numbers, a cop was 19.43 times more likely to be killed by someone than they were to kill someone themselves. Roughly 1 police officer died every three days.

One of the cops killed this year.

14,196 murders occurred in the US in 2013. That’s twelve times the number of police-induced fatalities.  Despite only being around 14-15% of the population, black people constituted 38% of the arrested murderers.

I’m not trying to demonstrate that the cops in every situation are innocent, special snowflakes, or to justify the racism that certain cops indulge in. Indeed, many of the situations that get in the news involve police being complete assholes.  But if you got the impression that I was trying to defend the police/police racism, good!  I’m trying to make a point here: namely, that aligning statistics and numbers in the right way conveys a narrative – one that can sometimes deceive readers, or lead them by the nose.

For example, when Sam talks about the 1,149 people shot by police officers in 2014, he says: “over 100 of which were unarmed.”  But why not give the exact number, like he did with the number of victims?  Is it possible that *le gasp* he chose to be vague with that figure to tug at people’s heartstrings, rather than their minds?

More importantly: if “over 100” people killed by police were unarmed, what does that say about the other 1,000 people?  If they were armed, why are they included in a list of people that Sam is portraying as helpless victims of corrupt police forces?

Kudos to Sam: his alignment of the “100 people were unarmed” statistic fits beautifully behind the “The youngest was 12, the oldest was 65” line – the mental imagery of a terrified kid and a sad grandpa, followed by the gut-punch of “ONE HUNDRED PEOPLE WERE UNARMED” is a magnificent combination of verbiage.  Pity that he kind of throws away the other 1000 people there though. It gives the impression that he was using them to pad his “innocent victim” counter high at the start, to make the smaller numbers that follow seem more pressing and important…  but I’m sure someone in the super-ethical field of journalism wouldn’t manipulate/exaggerate a story like that, right?

Does this look like a face that would lie to you?

The point I’m trying to make here is that you should be wary about trusting statistics on face value.  It is incredibly easy to omit statistics that don’t suit a narrative and manipulate the numbers that remain to suit your advantage.  I strongly agree with the idea that police departments need fundamental reforms.  I look at incidents like Freddie Gray’s death in the back of a police van, and see how petty and vicious it was.  I see stuff like this story and wonder: why the hell weren’t these measures already in place? But I don’t need someone to try and “improve” reality with numbers for me: the truth of how certain cops behave is awful enough.

Interestingly enough, just yesterday the BBC ran a story from The Washington post, which says that over two people a day have been killed by police in 2015.  The fact that this number is actually lower than what it was in 2014 (according to Sam’s piece) goes completely unmentioned – as does the fact that it’s still a lower number than the number of police officers killed in action each day (2.5 civilians/suspects per day versus 2.8 officers). This was incorrect – as someone later pointed out to me, only 1 officer dies every three days.  I messed up big-time on that one.

If we want to talk honestly about police reforms, we should start by acknowledging that the ugly numbers don’t lie on just one side of the table – and we should be more careful about the way numbers are reported to us in general.


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