On-duty police fatally shoot about 1,000 people every year

Thursday, March 17th, 2022

When Ferguson burst into flames, Robert VerBruggen notes, we knew very little about the true number of people killed by police, unarmed or otherwise:

In a survey conducted by Manhattan Institute colleague Eric Kaufmann, for example, eight in 10 African-Americans and about half of white Biden voters said that they thought that young black men were more likely to be shot to death by police than to die in a car accident — one of the largest mortality risks to the young and healthy. Another survey, by Skeptic magazine, showed that more than a third of liberal and very liberal respondents thought that the number of unarmed blacks killed by police each year was “about 1,000” or more. About a fifth of those calling themselves “very conservative” thought the same thing. Yet another survey, from a trio of academics, found that about four in 10 African-Americans reported being “very afraid” of being killed by the police, which was roughly twice the share of black respondents who reported being “very afraid” of being murdered by criminals, as well as about four times the share of whites who reported being “very afraid” of being killed by the police.


So what do the basic numbers and five years of research reveal? These are the major findings detailed in the following pages:

On-duty police fatally shoot about 1,000 people every year. This number and its racial breakdown have remained remarkably steady since 2015. The overall Post tally has ranged from a low of 958 in 2016, to a “record” of 1,055 in 2021 (reported as this paper went to press), with any pattern difficult to distinguish from random chance.

Approximately a quarter of those killed are black. This is roughly double the black share of the overall population, but it is in line with — and sometimes below — many other “bench-marks” that one might use for comparison, such as the racial breakdowns of arrests, murders, and violent-crime offenders as reported by victims in surveys.

Blacks are an even higher percentage of unarmed civilians shot and killed by police (34%), which is a potential sign of bias. However, not all shootings of unarmed civilians are unjustified, and it is difficult to objectively classify these cases in a more granular fashion. And contrary to the popular perceptions outlined above, confirmed fatal police shootings of unarmed African-Americans number about 22 per year.

More rigorous research into the question of whether police killings reflect racial bias is in its infancy, and it has been subject to intense debates over the appropriate methods. But existing studies are divided on the bias question. Many papers fail to find bias in lethal force, though one of the most careful studies in the literature — of an unnamed city with a high murder rate — does find that white cops discharge their guns several times as often as black cops when sent to 911 calls in heavily black neighborhoods.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “However, not all shootings of unarmed civilians are unjustified, and it is difficult to objectively classify these cases in a more granular fashion.”

    The ‘orthodox’ bluechekist response to this would be, ‘irrespective of circumstances in reality what would rationally justify this or that outcome, the existence of differences in outcome at all necessarily demands increasing the social status of sub-saharans vis-a-vis the other cattle by various privileges, until such differences disappear and or reverse altogether’.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    And of course, the distinct possibility exists that black suspects are more likely to resist arrest by white officers for racial reasons, although you can bet that possibility most certainly won’t be looked into.

  3. Senexada says:

    A while back I personally reviewed all 17 cases of unarmed black men, plus a subset of the more numerous cases of unarmed white men, that were recorded as shot by police in the WA Post 2018 database. For each case, I located and read at least 2 contemporary local news reports.

    The result was a mournful glimpse at bad situations and bad decisions that didn’t fit “the standard narrative.”

    My personal take-away was that the best ways to reduce this particular risk are to not wrestle with police and to not associate with felons.

    A related observation is that the raw numbers (unadjusted for likelihood of police encounter) show the gender differences are larger than the racial ones. For instance, a white male is significantly likelier to be killed by police than a black woman.

  4. Mark B. says:

    Let’s deal with surveys. There is no cost to telling a lie to a survey interviewer. Thus, four out of five black people think they will be murdered by a racist white cop tomorrow, and seven out of ten white Republicans think that Obama was born in Mecca.

    Every black parent who tells you that they had to have ‘the talk’ with their son about dealing with the racist white police know that the greatest danger to their little angel is young black males. The best thing a black parent could do for the safety of their children would be to move to a lily-white neighborhood and never leave.

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