Study: Black Cops as Likely as White Cops to Murder Unarmed Black People

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As an American who has lived in the United States for the vast majority of my life, I think I can safely say that we’ve got some problems here. Some of the biggest are our gun problem and our cop problem, and it’s strange to me that even now, when we are having a national conversation about how bad our gun problem is, and the majority of people are on board with banning assault weapons and cracking down on who is allowed to carry a gun, not many people are talking about how maybe cops shouldn’t have guns, either. And to be perfectly honest, that is my viewpoint: guns are bad. No one should have guns. Especially not cops.

I bring this up because of a study that was just published in the journal Public Administration Review. Researchers at Rutgers dug through data from 2014 and 2015 to look at every instance of a police officer using lethal force in the United States. Their finding, which may be a surprise to some people, is that when an officer kills a black person, that officer is just as likely to be white as they are to be black. In other words, we don’t have a problem with white cops killing black people — we have a problem with cops, of all races, killing black people.

Does that mean racism is over? I mean sure, if you frequent the more Nazi-ish subreddits, that’s probably going to be your takeaway. But no, not in reality. The study also showed that yes, black people are murdered by cops way more often than statistical chance, and that is a product of racism. We don’t have a white cop problem in the US — we just have a cop problem. Cops are racist, regardless of their own race.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has any knowledge of history or sociology, or anyone who is already a member of a marginalized group. There are always going to be members of those groups who gain some kind of authority and then use that authority to fit in with their bigoted society, and to raise themselves above what they see as the lesser members of their group. There are Jewish neo-Nazis, and women who campaigned against suffrage, and black Republicans. And you have cops from all kinds of backgrounds who join an inherently racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted police force and we give them all guns and expect them to uphold a backwards system.

I mean, I love Brooklyn 99 as much as the next girl but in reality, our police force needs a massive overhaul. Consider this: the Rutgers study found that it’s exceedingly rare for police to kill an unarmed person — less than 1% of all people killed by cops are unarmed. But you’re probably right picturing the difference between a person with his hands in the air and a person pointing a gun at an officer, and that’s not correct. A person is considered “armed” if they are killed anywhere in the general vicinity of a gun, whether that gun is in their home, in their car, or in a holster right next to their license to carry, as it was with Philando Castile. Philando Castile was pulled over in his car by police, he informed them that he was carrying a gun (which he had a permit to carry), told them he was reaching for his wallet to get his ID, and then a cop shot him 7 times, killing him.

In this study, Philando Castile would have been considered an “armed” suspect.

Also consider the many instances in which we’ve seen evidence of cops planting guns on people after they shoot them, like the case in Baltimore where cops were discovered to carry around BB guns specifically for that purpose. Oh and yes, BB guns, knives, and even toy guns count as being “armed.” It doesn’t require the victim to be actually brandishing a real gun at an officer to count.

So even this study is unable to fully comprehend the number of unwarranted murders committed by police officers. We have a cop problem.

In 2014 the Economist found that in the most recently available year, cops in the US murdered 458 people. Do you know how many people cops killed in Japan? Zero. Britain? Zero. And you know why? Yes, there’s probably a very different culture there that helps, but also, the vast majority of cops in Britain don’t carry guns. Because you don’t actually need guns to keep people safe, or to investigate crimes. What happens when you need a cop with a gun? You call in the specially trained firearms officer, whose entire job is being able to safely and responsibly wield a gun.

Meanwhile, here in the US not only does every cop carry a gun, including often when off-duty, but now we’re giving them assault rifles, which they’re brandishing at peaceful protests like anti-fascist rallies. Call me crazy, but when we have a police force who is murdering hundreds of people who don’t need to be murdered, and they’re showing up at anti-fascist rallies carrying assault weapons, I think it’s time our anti-gun rhetoric take the cops into consideration.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. And why should police carry side arms at all? The original notion seems to be that officers don’t want to be shot by armed suspects, hence they should be able to ‘defend themselves’ with deadly force.

    I don’t have source info at my fingertips, but something like 50% of officers who die of gunshot wounds are killed with their own guns. Effective self-defense with pistols requires more training and practice than any police actually receive.

    American police are probably much more likely to BE shot than police in almost any other developed country. Hyper-aggressive ‘control’ policies seem to be the official answer to this, rather than countering the saturation level of guns in the public. Watch dashboard or bodycam vids…the police are screaming unintelligible demands at people while aiming directly at them. I gather that THEY are exposed to multiple vids of cops getting shot because they didn’t ‘control’ a suspect.

    And…didn’t I see somewhere that the most dangerous stops police make are white men in cars without plates? The ‘sovereign citizen’ and white supremacist gun nuts are the real danger.

    The ‘up-arming’ of US police is scandalous too. High capacity 9mil automatics just mean that terrified cops spray 17-21 rounds of ammunition instead of 6. There is no reason for them to tote those things. And para-military gear like AR15s? What possible legitimate use could they have?

    1. It’s no surprise at all. People forget when gun control first caught on in this country. It wasn’t on the left. It was Ronald Reagan, taking guns out of the hands of Black Panthers.

      For Indians, our experience has been that everyday racists tend to get creative, doing things like drugging you, driving you up a cliff, wrapping you in a blanket, and throwing you off. Northern Plains nice, you know? (I mean, back in the 70s, they even rented an American Legion hall for a lynching, so, yeah.) But racist cops? They’ve got a gun right there and a hair-trigger sense of fear, which is of course much more racial. (I mean, shooting a naked guy. Where is he going to hide his gun? Don’t answer that.)

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