Black lives, Aussie lives

Let me attempt an Australian perspective on the current “Black Lives Matter” campaign in the US. Observing from across the Pacific, the campaign does not actually seem to be primarily about minimising the loss of Black lives. If we look at the four causes of preventable death in the chart below, the most serious problem among Black people in the US is in fact homicide (in 90% of cases, homicide by other Black people). Over 8,000 Black people were murdered in the US in 2013. Surely this is unacceptable! Following homicides are motor vehicle accidents and suicides (among US Whites, as in Australia, the sequence is reversed). Black deaths by legal intervention (including justified shootings, unjustified shootings, and car-chase deaths) are less than 1% of the total for the four causes.

Death rates for selected causes in the US and Australia (2013 data from the CDC and various Australian sources)

Here in Australia, there has long been considerable angst about Aussie lives lost on the road, and the government has responded with a wide range of solutions – more traffic policing, increased penalties during key holiday periods, random breath testing, red-light and speed cameras, education of high-school students, and advertising campaigns like the one below. These initiatives have been very successful: the Australian motor vehicle accident death rate has dropped to less than one fifth of what it was in 1975, and by my calculation, over 100,000 Aussie lives have been saved during that time (of course, improvements in vehicle safety have also contributed). I have no idea what a campaign specifically to address Black homicide deaths would look like, but Richmond, California provides one controversial option. New Orleans has another approach.

Victorian TAC “Slowing Down Won’t Kill You” anti-speeding campaign

If the “Black Lives Matter” campaign is not primarily about minimising the loss of Black lives, then what is it about? From the other side of the planet, it seems to be primarily about justice. Just as we Australians see death by shark as particularly horrible (rare though it is), many people see death at the hands of the police, even if accidental, as particularly abhorrent, because police are supposed to be the guardians of justice.

Of course, any interaction between police and citizens has a chance of going wrong, particularly in the US, where guns are ubiquitous, and where police are justifiably cautious (given that an average of 48 police officers are shot and killed each year – a death rate of 5.2 per 100,000). If each interaction has a probability p of catastrophe, we can reduce the number of catastrophes by reducing the number of interactions, or by reducing p, or both (see the chart below).

Reducing the number of interactions between police and citizens effectively means less policing. This has been a key demand of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and includes decriminalising a wide range of minor offenses as well as halting random “stop-and-question” actions by police. Of course, the downside to less policing is an inevitable increase in crime, so any initiatives of this kind require careful thought.

Reducing the probability of interactions going wrong essentially means better training. Police need to internalise an appropriate use-of-force model (like the Canadian one above), they need good strategies for dealing with the mentally ill, they need good community relations, and they need enough training in non-lethal approaches to dangerous situations that they can react correctly in a split second. Effective computer simulation tools are a key part of such training. Naturally, such training improvements would require additional government expenditure on law enforcement. Also (although the “Black Lives Matter” movement has campaigned against it), police need top-of-the-line body armour – the more likely police are to survive being shot at, the less likely they are to shoot too soon themselves. Finally, it seems to me that gun owners also need training on how to interact with police in a way that cannot be misconstrued as threatening (the ACLU recommends, inter alia, “don’t resist even if you believe you are innocent” and “keep your hands where the police can see them”).

The other issue often raised is an alleged racial disparity in US deaths by legal intervention. A close look at the bar chart above shows that US Blacks are 2.4 times more likely to die by legal intervention than US Whites. However, when crime rates are taken into account, this apparent racial disparity drops or disappears (depending on how the adjustment is done). That is, police are more likely to interact with citizens in high-crime communities, and a small fraction of those interactions will end in shootings by police (whether justified or unjustified). However, both simulation studies and empirical data suggest that such deadly encounters are not, in fact, biased against Blacks.

Update: since this post was written and scheduled, there has tragically been another mass shooting of police officers in the US. Blue lives matter, whether they are Black or White.


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