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Police Violence Ignored When It Fails to Support the Media’s Ideological Bias

by Benjamin Tschirhart and Richard Resch

The tragic shootings of Black people by white police officers are a catalyst for national outrage. They are regular grist for the media mill across the country and rightly receive the attention of the public when they occur, as they do all too frequently. But when police violence fails to conform to the favored narrative that the mainstream media wishes to promote, it receives only cursory attention, if any at all.

On February 8, 2020, police officers attempted to arrest Ariel Roman for illegally moving between cars on the Red Line train in Chicago. Footage of the incident shows Roman (a white man) violently resisting arrest. Officers Bernard Butler and Melvina Bogard (a Black woman) engaged in a protracted struggle with Roman, attempting to physically subdue him before deploying their Tasers. When the Tasers failed to knock Roman down, Bogard drew her gun and yelled “Sir, put your f***ing hands down!”

When Roman, who was later found to be carrying an illegal quantity of cannabis in his backpack, failed to comply, Butler yelled “shoot him!” Bogard, better at following orders than Roman, opened fire, hitting him once in the stomach and again in the back as Roman turned to flee. The officers arrested him shortly afterward.

Bogard claimed that she shot Roman in self-defense, though Roman was unarmed and clearly posed no danger to anyone around him. Even Bogard’s chief, David Brown, called for her to be fired for violating department protocol, saying that deadly force was inappropriate under the circumstances.

The response of the mainstream media was apathetic at best. Zachary Goldberg is a policy analyst who researches racial bias in the media. He says that shootings involving Black victims generate nine times as many searches as those where the victims are white. He says that media companies have made “editorial decisions … to normalize among their readership the belief that ‘color’ is the defining attribute of other human beings.…”

Although some data indicates that white people make up about 40 percent of police shooting victims, their stories are not as effective in generating outrage. In a Washington Post special report updated on March 27, 2023, called “Fatal Force,” the Post shares police shooting data collected since 2015 and reports that the number is actually higher than 40 percent: “although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population and are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.” It is a sad testament to the sensationalist nature of our media that only the victims who drive website traffic get reported, but such selective news coverage creates a warped impression of reality among those whose only understanding of officer-involved shootings come from mainstream media.

However, there are other voices in the debate that receive little to no media coverage. Roland Fryer, Jr., is one such example. Is it because he’s a fringe figure who lacks credibility or exhibits an unabashed anti-Black racist bias? Hardly – Fryer is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, who happens to be a distinguished Black scholar.

In contrast to the research that garners all the media headlines trumpeting the alleged fact that the police are slaughtering Black Americans at alarmingly disproportionate rates because of racial bias, Fryer’s research arrives at a decidedly different conclusion. In his 2018 paper titled “Reconciling Results on Racial Differences in Police Shootings,” he writes: “conditional on a police interaction, there are no racial differences in OIS [officer-involved shootings] on either the extensive or intensive margins. [footnote omitted] Using data from Houston, Texas – where I have both OIS and a randomly chosen set of interactions with police where lethal force may have been justified but was not used – I find, after controlling for suspect demographics, officer demographics, encounter characteristics, suspect weapon and year fixed effects, that blacks are 27.4 percent less likely to be shot at by police relative to non-black, non-Hispanics. Investigating the intensive margin – who shoots first in an encounter with police or how many bullets were discharged in the endeavor – there are no detectable racial differences.”

This is not to suggest Fryer’s statistics and conclusion are right and those arriving at the opposite conclusion are wrong. Who knows? – to quote the famous line about statistics, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But what is known for certain is that it is not a foregone conclusion that police are shooting Black Americans at grossly disproportionate rates due to racism, despite what the media would have the public believe.

Based on observing just the shootings that actually get reported by the media, a likely explanation of officer-involved shootings is that police officers of all races shoot victims of all races under questionable circumstances because that’s just what some cops do, regardless of the race of either the shooter or the victim.  

Sources: nypost.com; Fryer, R., Harvard University and NBER, “Reconciling Results on Racial Differences in Police Shootings”

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