Column: Calculating Killer Statistics

Samuel Clemens (aka, Mark Twain) famously joked that there were three kinds of untruths: lies, damned lies, and statistics. He was not the first to suggest this, but his aphorism was widely circulated in America and was widely adopted as somewhat accurate, even if it was said facetiously. Most people do not understand statistics, and even those familiar with statistical methods are often skeptical of the claims made on the bases of these mathematical acrobatics. Some even believe that Twain’s joke was more accurate than humorous. According to these cynics, a lie can be fairly innocuous, such as when a lover is assured that he or she is just as attractive as he or she was two decades earlier. A damned lie is one that is patently false and responsible for terrible consequences, such as the claim by a fascist regime in Germany in the 1920s that the nation’s defeat in World War I was caused by Jews in their midst.  Statistics can be misleading and have their detractors because they are not universally understood and are subject to manipulation or misrepresentation.

Statistical methods were developed to keep serious investigators from deceiving themselves.  Unfortunately, even serious investigators are often too eager to prove that their hunches were right and that they have actually come up with something truly useful or novel or simply valid.  Drug trials that fail to demonstrate the safety or effectiveness of a drug may be “reanalyzed” to tease out a positive result by using a different statistical method than the one agreed upon before the trial started. The purist may object to such post facto assessments of data, but corporate executives will often insist on postmortem torture of negative findings until something positive can be extracted from the disappointing outcome of a study.

Even the simplest of numbers can be used to bolster arguments on both sides of a conclusion.  Statistics should stop all debate but rarely do. For example, consider the perception that police shootings are rampant and disproportionately target African-Americans. As is the case with many racially charged issues in our country, accurate numbers are hard to come by, and those submitted in official tallies are suspect because prejudice influences those reporting the numbers.  This being said, the deaths by shooting or other less conventional means (e.g., hangings, beatings, transportation-linked neck fractures) of Americans being apprehended by or in the custody of law enforcement personnel is relatively small. 

In our population of over 330 million citizens, the annual deaths associated with law enforcement activities is officially just over 1,100 and has been pretty much the same over the past decade.  Even adding questionable incidents in which law enforcement denies all knowledge of how the person being sought or in custody ended up dead, the body count still does not exceed 1,300 annually.  This number includes clearly justifiable killings, such as in the setting of a gun battle, and clearly unjustifiable killings, such as in the lethal restraint of an unarmed suspect. Contrasting this number with the murder rate in a major American city, such as New York City which reported 485 murders in 2021, suggests law enforcement is not out of control even if our citizens are. On the other hand, Japan, an industrialized country with a population in excess of 123 million people has only 2 or 3 police killings annually.

There are, of course, many societal differences between the U.S. and Japan, but the main difference in the lethality of encounters between law enforcement and perpetrators is the access to firearms. In the recent assassination in Japan of Shinzo Abe, the murderer had to build his own firearm, and the gun he built could only fire 2 rounds, thereby allowing for his arrest within seconds of his discharging his weapon.  In the massacre in Uvalde,Texas, the 18 year-old perpetrator was able to legally purchase a military-style, semiautomatic rifle and over 100 rounds of ammunition, with which he held off more than 100 law enforcement “professionals.”

These statistics for killings by American law enforcement personnel might look outrageous to a citizen of Japan, but they would necessarily be viewed as modest by a citizen of Brazil, where the killings by police are nearly 6 times as frequent (per 10 million citizens) as that experienced by Americans. The carnage is in the eye of the beholder.

Similarly, whether there is a disproportionate vulnerability of minorities, like African-Americans, to police killings depends on how the numbers are viewed.  In 2021, 266 black suspects, most of whom were men, were killed by the police. The total of people killed that year by law enforcement was 1,145.  That means that 23 percent of the people killed were African-Americans, even though only 12 percent of the U.S. population is black. That same year, 42 percent of law enforcement killings involved white people, even though more than 60 percent of the population is white. Apparently, African-Americans are at a substantially higher risk of being killed in an encounter with law enforcement than are white suspects.

A common explanation for this disparity is that encounters with black suspects are more dangerous than those with white suspects. One would expect that the black suspects killed were more likely to be armed or erratic in their behavior when confronted by law enforcement personnel than the white suspects.  Actually, it is just the reverse.  Black suspects killed are much more likely to be unarmed than white victims of police shootings. African-Americans shot and killed during encounters with the police are much less likely to have exhibited evidence of mental illness than white victims at the time of the fatal encounter.  In fact the one feature that is much more prevalent in the behavior of black suspects as opposed to white suspects who end up killed by law enforcement is an attempt to flee. A common refrain is that African-American suspects attempt to flee because they fear being killed by law enforcement, and they end up being killed because they attempt to flee.

We obviously should be working to eliminate the risk of anyone, whether it be a suspect or a law enforcement official, being killed when a suspect is confronted or apprehended.  Our friends in other industrialized countries, such as Japan, New Zealand and Australia have found a vital element in the reduction of fatal police encounters is the restriction of access to firearms. If suspects are less likely to be armed and are viewed that way by law enforcement, the result is a much lower incidence of killings in encounters with the police. White, black, and blue (the police) are all safer in a society that is not armed to the teeth.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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