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by Zach Goldberg
Friday, 11
August 2023
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07:00

Americans vastly overestimate police brutality

New research found that liberals are particularly susceptible
by Zach Goldberg
Public perceptions of police brutality are heavily skewed. Credit: Getty

The recent conviction of Tou Thao, an officer involved in the killing of George Floyd, marks yet another chapter in the ongoing national conversation about police brutality and racial bias. This case, and the protests it ignited, thrust the issue into the media spotlight, shaping public perceptions of police violence against black Americans. But, as urgent and resonant as these events have been, it’s still critical to ask whether the heightened media attention distorted our understanding of the true scale and nature of police use of force.

Findings from my Manhattan Institute report, published today, suggest that it has. Indeed, they reveal that many people hold warped beliefs about both the prevalence and racial distribution of police violence. For instance, the average respondent estimated that over half (54%) of fatal police shooting victims since 2015 were black and that just 23% were white.

In fact, the reality is almost exactly the reverse: 51% of victims were white and 27% were black. Further, while respondents of all ideological orientations guessed incorrectly, the magnitude of the error was significantly larger among liberals (who estimated that nearly 60% and 20% of victims were black and white, respectively) than conservative respondents.

Faulty perceptions extend to estimates of “unarmed” victims. Consider that an average of 7% of all fatal police shooting victims between 2015 and 2022 were unarmed, including 10% of black and 6% of white victims. But according to the average respondent, 41% of all victims were unarmed. Once again, such estimates were significantly larger among liberals (48%) than conservative  respondents (26%).

What is behind these misperceptions? They likely have been shaped not only by  heavy media attention, but also the media’s wildly disproportionate coverage of unarmed black versus white/non-black victims of fatal police shootings.

This has troubling implications. Despite the media’s unhelpful role in perpetuating fallacies about police brutality, such misperceptions of police use of force and racial differences significantly shape respondents’ policy attitudes. In particular, the more respondents misestimated, the more likely they were to support various de-policing policies, including cuts to both police spending as well as the number of police officers patrolling the street. 

The good news is that the data also indicates that popular perception is responsive to informational correction. Respondents were significantly less likely to view police brutality and racism as severe and endemic problems after seeing the official figures. Equally, if not more importantly, they also exhibited greater support for policing-centred anti-crime strategies. And, as expected, these effects were generally stronger for those with relatively poorer estimation accuracy, such as liberal voters. 

Misperceptions about police brutality have substantial social and economic costs, especially for those most in need of police protection. They can erode public trust, provoke unrest, and ultimately lead to the enactment of policies that jeopardise public safety, as with defunding initiatives.

Given these stakes, it is vital that news organisations provide greater context and balance in their reporting of police use of force. Ultimately, police reform may still be desirable, but its pursuit does not — and should not — require misleading the public about the nature and scope of the issue.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 months ago

Given these stakes, it is vital that news organisations provide greater context and balance in their reporting of police use of force. 
Hahahaha…oh man. I was feeling stressed at work, needed a good laugh.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 months ago

Yeah that was just too funny. Nobody running news organizations cares about any of that. They care about the quarterly stock price, or pleasing their government masters. That’s it. “News organizations” are either privately owned money making machines who will say and do anything that they think they can get away with to make a buck or publicly funded propaganda machines that simply repeat whatever our technocrat overlords have decided is the ‘truth’. What rock has this author been living under, or perhaps he’s just too young to know better.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
3 months ago

Of course, the progressives will say police likely planted the guns on their black victims. Just like they say the only reason blacks are so over-represented in prison is because police intentionally target them for arrest.

The Left has a theological belief in the “sacred victim class”. Simple statistics and evidence can not alter a theological belief.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 months ago

There goes your U.K. banking facilities 🙂

Last edited 3 months ago by Ian Barton
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

Not that I disagree with your description of the Left ‘victim class’ but, the Right has its ‘victim’ version too. It got the Donald elected in 16′ and may well again in 24′. Better if neither side is fooled by such brazen false narratives.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
3 months ago

The American media print up to date statistics about all kinds of things, eg, baseball statistics, NFL statistics.
This means the average American is very well aware of how many playoffs the Detroit Lions have been in, but not informed at all about police brutality.
Is this because the media think statistics about sport are more important than statistics about race?

Other way around surely .
The media think statistics about race are more important – so they don’t publish them, otherwise Americans might learn the truth.

Last edited 3 months ago by Steven Carr
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Ironically, the Washington Post has an extensive database on all police killings in the US. What they choose to do with it is another story.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago

Many in the US live in a complete bubble. I am African and I know a good deal about American stats, seemingly more than a lot of citizens.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
3 months ago

There is no “ongoing national conversation” about police brutality and racial bias. There is only one story: racist cops kill black people. No other is allowed, you racist cop-lover.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

Yes. That’s why this article and comment board, and others like it, do not exist. Zach Goldberg literally can’t write what he just published here. Imagine the scary consequences that are coming. (I agree with you to a degree, but I know you’re smarter than your absolute mode).

Will Crozier
Will Crozier
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

This will sound fatalistic but in some sense this Unherd article does not exist, at least not for the purposes of changing the mainstream conversation. This article is a counter-narrative by an independent news site so will typically be either ignored, or written off as cooky by the majority. Politically disengaged/captured friends of mine are very skeptical of counter-narrative claims. If the BBC reported this data during the height of BLM protests (before I get yelled at, I acknowledge that would never happen), it would have had an enormous impact on public perceptions. Not on the perceptions of readers of Unherd, who are likely to be interested in the facts behind the narrative anyway, but on the majority. The disengaged person in my office still believes the BBC and the Guardian in more instances than we would like to think.

Last edited 3 months ago by will_crozier
Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
3 months ago

Police is in the business of using force to enforce laws.
Some left wing activists with media clout try to create a confusion between legitimate use of force to enforce laws they disapprove (such as private property rights) with police brutality.(which are like nosocomial infections : a negatve effect of positive activity, which should be avoided as much as possible).
In France, lhe islamist party (LFI) is complaining about police brutality following riots, as they will not say publicly that they approve of the lootage.

Last edited 3 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

There was an outrageous poll a few years ago, with a majority of Dems thinking there was something like 10,000 police killings a year. Did a quick search and I couldn’t find it.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
3 months ago

Derek Chauvin was not a bad cop. He was trying to keep Floyd alive until the medics (he called for) arrived. His was a political trial with a political sentence. Look again at ALL of the photos taken of the event. Listen to the words of the State Governor and think of the mob outside the courtroom. Floyd died from an overdose of Fenatyl.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Floyd was a criminal high on drugs. Though he did not deserve to die, his death was his own doing. Media coverage forever damaged the U.S. economy and political landscape.

joe hardy
joe hardy
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Interesting to note that not once during the trial did the prosecutors bring up racism as a motive in George Floyd’s death.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
3 months ago

Just for background, you get these data for the total population (2020 census).
Race White Black Asian Other
Population 62 12 6 20
Shootings 51 27 2 20
Figures for shootings are from this article.
The big numbers for ‘Other’ do confuse things a bit. In the census figures ‘Other’ are mostly ‘Two or more races’ (which are mostly ‘White plus something else’) or ‘None of the above’. It does look like black people are overrepresented (and Asians are underrepresented), but as the author implies this seems to be not mainly a race problem, but a violence problem.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
3 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

What was the murder weapon, in the George Floyd case I mean? Police have all manner of weapons on their belts and in their cars. Which one of those weapons did they use on Mr. Floyd? Mr. Floyd was a very large and strong man. He had been arrested and jailed some 19 times, if reports are to be believed. He resisted arrest on the night in question. He did so successfully. Even while standing up, near the officers, he complained many times: “I can’t breathe.” The officers knew or suspected he was hopped up on street drugs. Not able to get him in the squad car, the officers called for an ambulance and held Mr. Floyd on the ground while waiting for that ambulance. There was a large crowd and thus the wait was a long one. Murder?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
3 months ago

Yes. Murder. Even a child knows what happens if you choke someone. They struggle, they go limp, they pass out; and then if you don’t stop choking them they die.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
3 months ago

That is exactly why the Democrat run Minneapolis police department made that chokehold used in the detention a recommended procedure.
Of course, the police department abandoned recommending that technique before the trial started.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

Certainly a criminal disregard for life. Floyd was fully subdued and there were multiple other officers present.
A similar thing happened to a Florida white man called Tony Timpa. So it is not all black and white, but the worst cases of excessive force tend to happen with black men. It’s also true the same demographic has the most crime-in-progress interactions with police, or more bluntly: commits the most violent crime as a percentage of their population.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

You haven’t even watched the horrific video.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I watched it many times. I saw no police officers choking Mr. Floyd. Still, I was horrified by what I did see. A man laying face down on the ground, unable to breathe, an officer holding him down. Please, who could not be horrified by such a spectacle?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

Ok. sorry. I misunderstood you to be an apologist for Chauvin’s actions or those of the by-standing cops.
I agree it wasn’t a clear case of murder as I very much doubt Chauvin thought Floyd would die. He didn’t think at all, I don’t think, except of posing, hands in pockets, with a vindictive knee to the neck. The testimony of the chief and of other Minneapolis police–though no doubt mindful of their own liability–was quite damning to Chauvin too.
Murder? Unlikely. Manslaughter? Yes, I say. I find it hard to feel to much pity for Chauvin–who had a pretty checkered previous record in the job–but he certainly got a much longer sentence when the case became a national symbol.
Thanks for the clarification and I apologize for jumping right to an accusatory question.
*Re-reading your above comment more carefully, I see that you don’t consider a knee pressing into the neck to be “choking”. Quite an academic distinction when force that cuts off the oxygen needed for life has been applied.
Whoever downvoted me: Did Derek Chauvin do anything criminal, or are such needless deaths the fault of the drug addicts and often petty criminals who suffer them?

Last edited 3 months ago by AJ Mac
Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I think your “needless deaths” comment is on the mark. The officers did exactly what they are trained to do. One or more of them had arrested Floyd before, maybe even several times. They knew he was his own worst enemy, as criminals typically are. They knew also that he was an affable guy. Very likable. I doubt seriously they had any interest in harming him. It is the rare cop who actually wants to hurt people. Cops also know what the abuse of street drugs does to people. They know especially what a hand full a large human being is when pumped full of those drugs. I think the overall reaction to the video, my own reaction included, was not street wise. I can’t exclude the possibility that one or more of those cops lusted to kill Floyd and acted on that lust. But the evidence of it is not great.

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
3 months ago

Great that accurate information can change attitudes. The problem is that the entire University-Media-Complex is dedicated to deliberately presenting misinformation as a matter of course

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
3 months ago

Much of what might fairly be called “brutality” doesn’t result in death or a trip to the hospital. Almost none of those cases are reported, for the simple reason that the report would wind up in front of the same cops who harrassed you, who now have your picture on their phones and your address, etc. It’s just not safe to file a complaint.
Also, a knowingly false arrest is pretty much the same as a kidnapping. Even without violence it’s a serious mis-conduct that is never reported as such. The systems attitude is “the judge will decide”. After you spend a night or two in jail.
Your statistical veiw-point leaves out a lot of abuse.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
3 months ago

“What is behind these misperceptions? They likely have been shaped not only by heavy media attention, but also the media’s wildly disproportionate coverage of unarmed black versus white/non-black victims of fatal police shootings.”
The real message, liberals are the most ignorant…duh.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

Many do overestimate police brutality but many American precincts are far too militarized and too quick, overall, to use deadly force on people of any race. During our long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a great number came almost directly from combat, often with blatant PTSD. Policeman is a job such veterans tare outwardly qualified for, but should not do.
I’m not against police, don’t think we’re in a societal position to reduce their numbers, and readily admit that things are not as “black and white” as MSM narratives often insist. But the level of violent force too frequently used by certain cops is not ok either.

Last edited 3 months ago by AJ Mac
Michael Layman
Michael Layman
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I don’t care for your generalizations against veterans big Mac. Did you service in SW Asia? On the whole deadly force constitutes a minutia of police interaction with the public.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  Michael Layman

Of course. But are you somehow in favor of the number of unarmed people American police kill or would you like to see it go down?
My generalization is against hiring soldiers who are battlefield-traumatized to be police, soon after they return from battle. I think the vast majority of police do a good job with what they are given, but bad department policies and a non-trivial number of bad/bruised apples make things deadlier than they need to be.
Some admittedly broad generalities, but on topic and fair I think.

Last edited 3 months ago by AJ Mac
Will K
Will K
3 months ago

100% of police shootings are done by armed police. Police should not be armed. It’s inappropriate for a public servant to shoot ANYONE.

Graham Willis
Graham Willis
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

Quite, they should accept being shot dead by armed crims. Its part of the job.

harry storm
harry storm
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

Psychotic.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

Almost the funniest post I’ve ever seen here!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

100% of police shootings are done by armed police.
I’d be far more concerned if any police shootings were done by unarmed police, or by armed non-police, or, for that matter, unarmed non-police.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

Lost in all this is the simple fact that fifty years ago lots of people were shot by the cops but very few died. Police are now trained to kill, as if disposing of any narrative that might contradict their own was the real objective.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

Don’t know if your concluding claim is true but the policy that won’t allow cops to shoot at the weapon-holding arm of someone with a knife, instead requiring them to shoot to kill or not at all seems idiotic or, as you suggest, self-serving.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

I don’t know where you live but in most countries you have a right to defend yourself even to the point of a pre-emptive strike. Perhaps a policeman faced with an armed criminal should draw his truncheon to defend himself. How about you – have you ever been threatened by a person with a firearm? what was your response?

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
3 months ago
Reply to  Will K

Ha, ha, yes I imagine if it is a shooting, one is armed. I just can not picture what fantasy world you live in. 1984 maybe? Please provide a reference so we may understand your logic.