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Is the Washington Post Police Shooting Database About the Truth?
Or is it about bringing a particular narrative to people in power?
Regular readers know that I recently became interested in the Washington Post police shootings database when I realized that one of the entries had listed the “victim” of a police shooting as being an “unarmed black man” . . . when in fact he had been an armed Cambodian man. I wrote about this in a post at my blog: briefly, the database lists Channara Tom Pheap as an unarmed black victim of a police shooting. In fact, Pheap was a Cambodian man with no apparent black ancestry, who grabbed an officer’s Taser and tased the officer with it before being shot.
One of my readers wrote the editors on April 19, over three weeks ago, to advise them of the error. Nothing has been done. Why not? There is no rational reason to classify as “unarmed” a suspect who arms himself with an officer’s weapon, and is then shot while using that weapon to attack or threaten the officer.
One possible answer to the question can be found by listening to an interview with one of the creators of the database, Wesley Lowery, who appeared on the Fifth Column podcast in July 2020
Lowery never clarified how the paper decided how to define someone as being “armed.” He merely said that the folks working on the database argued about such issues. He gave examples to illustrate how difficult the question can be. For example, is someone who allegedly drives a car at police “armed”? Usually the police allege the car was used as a weapon, and the person’s family alleges otherwise. He pointed out, as I have, that “armed” does not equate to “the shooting was justified.” For example, Philando Castile was “armed.” It’s not necessarily illegal to be armed.
So why do I say that his interview provides insight into why the Post has not corrected their error? Because, as Lowery explained, exploring the truth is not always their top priority.
You might think I’m making this up. I’m not. That’s why I want to spend some time talking about it.
In the podcast, Lowery posited a scenario where every black person in a newsroom thinks the organization is racist, If that is the case, he asked, why would someone bother to ask if it’s true? Instead, he insisted, wouldn’t you want to go to the people in power and ask them why all the black people think there is racism?
Applying this analogy to shootings of black people by police, Lowery said he will stop asking questions when black people stop dying. In his view, it is the job of journalists, not to ask whether the system is indeed racist, but instead to bring these questions to the people in power. As he discussed this, he frequently laughed in a manner designed to convey the message: isn’t all of this obvious? I mean, how could anyone possibly disagree with me about this?
Lest I be accused of distorting this, let me quote Lowery here, beginning at 34:52 in the podcast at the link:
Say you run a newsroom, and every black person who works for you thinks the newsroom is racist, thinks they’re, they’re facing prejudice. Is it particularly productive to spend your time investigating if specifically or not they faced racism, or asking the question of, why does every black person I meet think that we’re racist? Right? Like, even if it is a management issue, right, versus a racism issue, you still have a massive failure, in the way it is . . .
And so like, look, I would love for there to be no racism in the system. And if you guys are, and if people stop getting killed, we don’t have to have, we don’t have to debate it at all, right? Like, like, we could sit here and argue forever about, is Eric Garner dead because he was black, or was it because . . . look, what would be dope is that if he wasn’t dead. And that, like, and that would solve the problem.
And I do think that, and like I said, and I also, and so I try to, and this is part of my philosophy in reporting, and what guides me in general in terms of the decisions I make about what projects to pursue, what stories to write, that type of stuff, is that, I do think it’s the job of the fourth estate to bring the questions of the populace to the power. Right? And so if a bunch of relatively powerless people are saying, the system is racist and screwing us over, it’s not necessarily my job to go: actually, you all don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s my job to go to the powerful people and go, so, prove to me how this isn’t true. Like, what is, like, because there is some, because that’s our, I think that’s at least part of the role of journalism, is to speak for people who otherwise don’t have Tim Scott’s phone number, right? And ask him these questions that they would want to ask.
Lowery and I have a very different view of the job of a journalist. I believe the job of the journalist is to find the truth and report it. Sure, there are always choices to be made about what stories to cover, what to emphasize, and so forth. But you have to have a North Star, and that guiding principle can’t be repeating potentially false narratives to the powerful to get their reaction. It has to be speaking the truth, whether that truth helps or harms people you believe to be powerless or powerful.
If a bunch of people think the system is racist, and there are good reasons to suspect it’s not, it is the job of a journalist to figure out that truth and report it.
But Wesley Lowery doesn’t even believe that to be his job.
You will also be unsurprised to learn that Lowery believes there is “systemic bias” in law enforcement and in the criminal justice system generally. Lowery claimed the studies all show this — well, except for the ones that “set out for political purposes” to disprove the systemic bias.
It’s worth noting that Lowery cites no specifics here. Nor does he address the question whether studies claiming to show systematic bias in the criminal justice system “set out for political purposes” to show such a bias. But again: does he even consider it his job to explore the truth of such issues? Apparently not.
As a side note, I’m with John McWhorter: we need to do away with the term “systematic racism” to begin with:
Our racial “reckoning” could use a reckoning about the term systemic racism. It is often used with an implication, a resonance, a tacit assumption, that to question is unthinkable. Uttered by a certain kind of person, often with a hint of emphasis or an eyeroll, we are to assume that the argumentation behind it has been long accomplished; the heavy lifting was taken care of long ago and we can now just decide what we’re going to do about this “racism” so clearly in our faces.
The problem is that this heavy lifting has not occurred. This usage of systemic racism is more rhetorical bludgeon than a simple term of reference. For all of the pungent redolence of the word racism in general when uttered by a certain kind of person, complete with the inherent threat to whites that they are racists to have anything to say but Amen, we must learn to listen past this theatrical aspect of the word and think for ourselves.
When we do, we see that all discrepancies between white and black are not due to “racism” of any kind, and that in many cases it is therefore senseless, and likely anti-black, to seek to undo the discrepancy – i.e. force “equity” – by tearing down the tasks, rules, or expectations involved in whatever the inequality manifests itself in. We must get past the idea that where black Americans are concerned, sociology is applesauce-easy. Black history is as complex as any history, and not just in the complexities of racism. Black history has been just plain complex.
Lowery did provide some insight into the methodology involved in compiling the database. He explained that, as a practical matter, it’s difficult to use records requests with every police department in the nation — in part because of the sheer number of police departments in the country (about 18,000), and in part because of the differing rules each state has about who is entitled to request records. But, he noted, unlike every routine use of force or even every use of deadly force, if a cop kills someone by gunfire, there will typically be at least one write-up of that event in a newspaper somewhere. Once you know a shooting has happened, and you have a date and a name, you can call the police and ask questions.
Lowery thinks this method captures about 80 percent of the shootings in the country. It has averaged about 1000 shootings per year. The database captures only shootings, so you won’t read about George Floyd, or Eric Garner, or Sandra Bland (say their names!) or Tony Timpa (who?). But you will read about people like Philando Castile or Alton Sterling (say their names!) as well as people like Timothy Smith and William Lemmon and Ryan Bolinger and Derek Cruice and Daniel Elrod and . . .
. . . and who again? Who the heck are you talking about, Patterico? What are all these names I never heard before?
Well, I guess it’s worth a short digression to talk about the fact that white people are shot by the cops too. You just don’t know their names. Nobody tells you to “say their names.” Coleman Hughes wrote about this in a great piece for City Journal:
Each story in this paragraph involves a police officer killing an unarmed white person. (To demonstrate how commonly this happens, I have taken all of them from a single year, 2015, chosen at random). Timothy Smith was killed by a police officer who mistakenly thought he was reaching into his waistband to grab a gun; the shooting was ruled justified. William Lemmon was killed after he allegedly failed to show his hands upon request; the shooting was ruled justified. Ryan Bolinger was shot dead by a cop who said he was moving strangely and walking toward her; the shooting was ruled justified. Derek Cruice was shot in the face after he opened the door for police officers serving a warrant for a drug arrest; the cops recovered marijuana from the property, and the shooting was ruled justified. Daniel Elrod robbed a dollar store, and, when confronted by police, allegedly failed to raise his hands upon request (though his widow, who witnessed the event, insists otherwise); he was shot dead. No criminal charges were filed. Ralph Willis was shot dead when officers mistakenly thought that he was reaching for a gun. David Cassick was shot twice in the back by a police officer while lying face down on the ground. Six-year-old Jeremy Mardis was killed by a police officer while sitting in the passenger seat of a car; the officer’s intended target was Jeremy’s father, who was sitting in the driver’s seat with his hands raised out the window. Autumn Steele was shot dead when a police officer, startled by her German shepherd, immediately fired his weapon at the animal, catching her in the crossfire. Shortly after he killed her, bodycam footage revealed the officer’s despair: “I’m f------ going to prison,” he says. The officer was not disciplined.
For brevity’s sake, I will stop here. But the list goes on.
Getting back to Lowery: in the podcast, Matt Welch pointed out that, according to Radley Balko, gun enhancements create the biggest racial disparity in sentencing. But why this is an issue of “systemic racial bias” — as opposed to a common-sense measure to try to do something about gun violence, which has a differential impact on a group that commits a disproportionate number of gun crimes — remains a mystery that neither Lowery nor Welch clarified.
But again, that’s a question about the truth. And in the battle between narrative and truth, narrative wins. At least Lowery is telling the truth about that!
P.S. There is a lighter note in the podcast that highlights the wicked humor of the host, Kmele Foster. The podcast was recorded on July 2, 2020. At several moments in the podcast, when Lowery was talking about shootings, the listener could hear fireworks in the background. Kmele kept cracking wise about the explosions, saying things like: “They’re trying to prevent black and brown people from sleeping.” Kmele insisted on calling the fireworks “ordinance.” If you don’t get the jokes, you must have missed this Twitter thread from a couple of weeks before the podcast:
Great stuff. I love Kmele.
[W]hile in raw numbers there were similar totals of white and black victims, blacks were killed at rates disproportionate to their percentage of the U.S. population.
What I intend to address in a future missive — and I have already done much of the groundwork — is what is meant by “disproportionate.” Does it really make sense to analyze whether the shootings are disproportionate to the percentage of the U.S. population? Doesn’t it make more sense to analyze whether the shootings are proportionate to the percentage of deadly attacks perpetrated on police by a given population?
I believe this latter question is the right question to ask. And it turns out that there is a way to measure whether a population engages in such deadly attacks — one you don’t hear much about.