African-Americans have been disproportionately killed by police in Virginia as a percentage of their population since 2000, but as a group they have committed a disproportionate number of violent crimes and assaults on officers that could lead to deadly encounters with law enforcement, an analysis of state crime data shows.
Police from across the state reported killing 31 blacks over the past 14 years, just one less than the 32 whites that were reported killed in confrontations with officers over the same period, according to reported “justifiable homicides” by Virginia law enforcement officers culled from Virginia State Police uniform crime reports.
While nearly 51 percent of the 63 people police reported they killed in Virginia from 2000 to 2013 were white, 49 percent of the fatalities were black, which would appear to be disproportionate since blacks constitute only about 20 percent of Virginia’s population.
But as a group, blacks also have been over-represented as offenders in violent crimes and assaults on police officers — factors that criminologists say increase potential for violence with law enforcement.
“Police killings are not random, and we shouldn’t expect killings to be proportionate with population percentages, but instead proportionate with potentially violent encounters with police,” said Thomas Baker, a criminologist and an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who teaches quantitative research methods and criminology theory and analyzed the data for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The data, however, also show that police officers in Virginia are more likely to kill black offenders for reasons other than attacking police officers or civilians or for resisting arrest than they are to kill white offenders for the same reason.
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The newspaper’s review of killings by police and assaults on officers in Virginia in the explosive context of race comes as the nation is engaged in an ongoing debate about the societal implications of high-profile killings of mostly young black men by white officers.
The polarizing nature of the debate can be illustrated by the differing reactions of a local African-American defense attorney who has represented black clients in police misconduct lawsuits, and the director of one of Virginia’s premier law enforcement associations for police executives.
Reginald Barley, an attorney, called the statistical analysis “misleading” and based primarily on police accounts of the killings. Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said police use of lethal force is a response to aggression or to resisting arrest in which officers have the right and duty to protect themselves and others from harm.
Data obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act show that 130 people have been reported killed by police in “justifiable homicides” in Virginia dating back to 1990. Of those, 59 were black, or 45.38 percent, and 70 were white, or 53.8 percent. One was Asian.
But the analysis of police killings was limited to the years 2000-2013 because comparable crime data that could provide some insight into the issue was not immediately available for most of the 1990s.
Baker said one potential measure of incidents that could lead to police killings in Virginia would be to compare them with the proportion of people identified as violent offenders. Blacks were implicated as the offender in more than 60 percent of all violent crimes in Virginia from 2000-2013, according to offender data from Incident Based Reporting figures maintained by state police.
The numbers ranged from a low of 56.2 percent of all violent offenders in 2013 to a high of 62.5 percent in 2002, state records show.
“When considering these numbers as a potential indicator for violent encounters with police, blacks are underrepresented, rather than overrepresented in police killings,” Baker said.
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Another indicator to consider when thinking about the proportion of potentially violent encounters that could lead police to kill someone are assaults on police officers, Baker said.
While only data from 2009 to 2013 was immediately available for analysis, a similar over-representation of blacks involved in violent encounters with police emerges.
Blacks were implicated in 44.7 percent of the 6,906 assaults on law enforcement officers during that five-year period, and using that as an indicator, blacks were slightly overrepresented in police killings “though the difference is not statistically significant,” Baker said.
“These numbers provide some suggestion that comparing the proportion of people killed by police who are black versus the proportion of the population that is black may be inaccurate,” Baker said. “Instead, it may be beneficial to think about police-citizen encounters that could lead to violence.”
However, Baker said, these numbers don’t tell us about the actual incidents that led to police killing black Virginians. When these figures are examined more closely, a pattern of black over-representation does emerge, he said.
Of the 63 people killed by police from 2000 to 2013, 54 were killed while either attacking a police officer or civilian, or resisting arrest, according to justifiable homicide category definitions included in the data.
But in 30 of 32 incidents in which whites were killed (93.8 percent), they were attacking a police officer, attacking a civilian or resisting arrest. By comparison, blacks were identified as engaging in the same behavior in only 24 of 31 killings (77.4 percent).
“This indicates that between 2000 and 2013 in Virginia, blacks were more likely to be killed during the commission of a crime or fleeing crime than whites,” said Baker, noting the other categories of behavior that were reported in officer-involved killings.
“While this sixteen-plus percentage difference is quite large and deserves further investigation and discussion, due to the small number of total cases, the differences between black and white killings do not reach statistical significance,” Baker said.
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Nearly all police killings are deemed by police departments or other authorities to be justifiable.
The large majority of the 164 officers involved in the 130 killings reported by police since 1990 were white, or 86.58 percent. Black officers were involved in nearly 11 percent of the killings, the data show.
No precise racial breakdown of Virginia’s law enforcement officers is available. But a U.S. Census American Community Survey for 2013 reported 71 percent of the state’s law enforcement workers were white, which matched the state’s estimated white population. By comparison, 23 percent were black, or 3 percent higher than Virginia’s estimated black population, the survey said.
The census’ definition of law enforcement worker, in addition to police officers and detectives, includes game wardens, animal control officers and parking inspectors.
Thirty of the state’s 130 justifiable homicides occurred in the central Virginia region. Richmond and Chesterfield County reported the highest numbers, with nine killings each, although one of Chesterfield’s homicides involved an FBI agent.
Precise statistics on the number of killings by police in Virginia are not available. All police agencies are required under uniform crime-reporting guidelines to report justifiable killings to state police, which collects all local crime data and forwards it to the FBI.
But at least one law enforcement agency in Virginia, the Fairfax County police, has decided unilaterally to stop reporting the data to state police.
In a December story on the hundreds of police killings that go uncounted nationally, The Wall Street Journal learned that Fairfax police opted some years ago to stop reporting those homicides, because they weren’t considered to be an “actual offense” and are not required to be included in an agency’s crime-reporting numbers.
In the early to mid-1990s, Fairfax police reported four people were killed in encounters with officers, earlier records obtained by The Times-Dispatch show.
In response to a FOIA request, Fairfax police provided The Times-Dispatch a list of justifiable killings by its officers from 2007 through 2013. There were 13 such homicides, or nearly two a year, that weren’t reported to state police. Fairfax declined to provide the age, gender and race of the individuals killed and the officers involved, saying such records are exempt from mandatory disclosure under FOIA.
“It’s true that [justifiable homicides] are not really a crime, per se,” said Norman Westerberg, manager of uniform crime reporting for Virginia State Police. “But it’s also a requirement that they send in justifiable homicides. It’s an interaction between an officer and victim that needs to be reported, and is required to be reported.”
Westerberg said he has contacted the FBI about Fairfax’s non-reporting of police killings.
Aside from Fairfax, Westerberg said he is unaware of any other Virginia law enforcement agencies that are not reporting justifiable homicides. “But I haven’t done a sample of them or canvassed the entire group.”
The Times-Dispatch also discovered that a 2011 killing by Henrico County police of a black criminal suspect who fired on officers was not reported, but a county police spokesman said an editing error prevented the uploading of the data to state police.
“We were unaware it was not submitted,” spokesman Chris Eley said. “We are currently working to correct the problem and resubmit the data.”
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Baker said the Virginia numbers add to the ongoing national narrative surrounding race and police killings.
“While it certainly seems that blacks may be disproportionately involved in crime and assaulting police officers, police officers in Virginia are more likely to kill black offenders for reasons other than attacking police officers or civilians or resisting arrest than they are to kill white offenders for the same reason,” Baker noted. “However, none of this tells us why.”
Baker said research clearly demonstrates that blacks have more negative views of police officers than do whites. They are less likely to cooperate with the police, trust the police or be satisfied with policing in general.
“Much of this distrust and dissatisfaction comes from negative direct and vicarious experiences with the police, including media accounts, and has unfortunately become inculcated among many black Americans,” Baker continued. “At the same time, police officers are not insensitive to this distrust and dissatisfaction, and may enter encounters with blacks on higher alert. All of this adds up to potentially volatile and violent interactions.”
What it also means, Baker said, is that a “one-sided approach” to solving the problem is unlikely to work.
“Additional training for police officers, while potentially beneficial, will not solve the problem without cultural changes on how police are perceived among many black Americans,” Baker said. “These two things, changing police behavior and changing how blacks view police, are reciprocally related.”
Without a change in police behavior, blacks’ perception of police are unlikely to change, and as long as blacks continue to distrust police and are discouraged to cooperate with them, “police officers may be on higher alert and quicker to resort to violence,” Baker said.
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Barley, an African-American who has litigated cases on both sides of the fence involving police officers, said he doesn’t put much credence in the statistical analysis of police killings because there are too many unknown variables in the data.
“Statistics alone can be misleading,” said Barley, who as a former Richmond city attorney in the 1980s represented the city in misconduct lawsuits filed against officers, but as a private litigator has sued Richmond officers on behalf of clients in alleged police brutality cases.
“The findings are primarily based on the reports of police officers … without the benefit of cameras or independent witnesses. And the defendants on many occasions cannot respond because they are convicted felons, so their credibility is diminished. All of those factors come into play.”
Consequently, “all you have is the policeman’s version of what happened, and I see that so often in my practice of criminal law,” Barley said, who has represented clients in high-profile criminal cases in U.S. District Court in Richmond.
Barley believes it is also misleading to compare police killings of African-Americans with violent crime offender data by race.
“And the reason for that is that we don’t know what the underlying reason is for an encounter with a police officer,” he said. “We don’t know who provoked who. We [have seen] provocations by police officers.”
Barley said he also suspects that a disproportionate number of “especially young African-American males” are being killed by police in Virginia versus young white males.
“And that’s the biggest problem that we have, killings by police officers of unarmed African-American young men,” Barley said. “Because all of the outcry that we’ve been hearing in the media of late, and all of the protests of late, have (involved) young African-American males who have been killed by police.”
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The data obtained by The Times-Dispatch does show a racial disparity in the average age of blacks and whites killed by police in Virginia over the past 24 years.
From 1990 through 2013, the average age of African-Americans killed by police was 30.78 years, compared with 36.07 for whites, a difference that is considered statistically significant, Baker said. In the 16 to 21 age category, 10 blacks and eight whites were killed in Virginia over that period.
Schrad, director of the Virginia police chiefs association, said while the statistics don’t reveal a gross over-representation of minorities in police killings, the numbers “also don’t address other factors that may need to be explained.”
For example, Schrad said it would be interesting to know whether there is a higher proportion of calls for service from minority neighborhoods, and whether the types of service calls vary between white and minority neighborhoods.
“If the sheer number of calls for service is dramatically higher in minority neighborhoods, then it stands to reason that there are more interactions with police officers and minorities that could be relevant to this statistical examination.”
“Fear of law enforcement officers represents a failure in our communities, and a breakdown of relationship between our officers and the people they are sworn to protect,” Schrad said. “It is critical that this trend be reversed through improved police-community relations.”
Schrad said there are two “key” approaches that may best address the problem: more training for officers in the less-than-lethal uses of force, and educating the public that complying with an officer, “even when you think the officer is wrong, is the correct response.”