Progressive Policies and Fatal Police Shootings

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In conservative circles, it isn’t exactly controversial to suggest that one way to reduce interactions with the police and, therefore, the number of interactions that go bad, is to reduce the number of rules that government must enforce.  The point is summed up perfectly in a famous meme by Turning Point USA:

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The other day on Twitter, however, James Kennedy initiated the sort of thing that happens when we tolerate ideas with which we disagree enough to actually discuss them and put forward an argument requiring me to substantiate my point, or at least to elaborate on it.  (Pick up the main thread here, with an offshoot here.)

Specifically, the context is police shootings, and Kennedy states that “if the claim is that progressive demands for government cause over-policing, that’s not in line with the data.”  He uses “data” — plural — but he puts forward a single datum: “fatal shootings by police in 2018.”  Thus, for example, we see that Sweden, which (he says) “stands out for its progressive interventions into the lives of citizens,” had only six fatal shootings by police that year.

This analysis fails, however, because one simply can’t compare all countries as if everything but the variable is the same.  Kennedy calls it a “control,” but he doesn’t actually control for anything.  At one point, he tries a little by citing “perhaps our closest cultural peer,” the United Kingdom, which (he claims) doesn’t “have this police abuse problem,” but he ignores that police there do not carry guns (except in Northern Ireland).

But let’s go back to Sweden.  That country has a population of about 10 million people, which means the United States is 33 times the size.  So, its six shootings would be 198 on the U.S. scale.  To be sure, that’s still multiples fewer than the 991 he shows for the United States, but it’s only the first adjustment.

Sweden is probably more than 90% white and possibly up to 87% of the same Christian denomination (Lutheran).  I won’t go digging for the scholarly substantiation, but these things make a difference in how a population interacts with itself.

Demographics are not everything, however.  People in different places are just different.  Culture is different.  Look, for example, at Massachusetts (population seven million).  According to the Washington Post’s running database, the Bay State had only three fatal police shootings in 2018, so clearly, posing the United States versus Sweden (or any much-smaller country) is not informative.

At this turn, I have to give progressives some ammunition if (as I find they often do) they stop the investigation at the point most congenial to their preferred conclusion.  Arizona is roughly the same population size and racial homogeneity as Massachusetts (seven million and 80%-ish white), and is understood to be more libertarian by far.  That state had 62 fatal police shootings in 2018.  Can we compare Arizona and Massachusetts to disprove my theory?

No, again, because places are different.  For one thing, Arizona is a border state subject to large-scale drug trafficking in a way that Massachusetts is not, and 37% of Arizona households have guns, compared with 10% in Massachusetts.   If you take out fatal shootings in which the victim was armed with a gun, Arizona drops to 18 in the year under investigation.  In fact, nationally, in 558 of the cases in which the police fatally shot somebody, that person had a gun.

So, perhaps the progressive policy with which you have to start for the outcome Kennedy wants is confiscating guns.  But then… the number of shooting victims characterized as “attacking” police was even bigger, at 615.

And then there’s the contrary case of New Hampshire.  Gun ownership up there is about the same as in Arizona, and it is also famous as a more-libertarian state than Massachusetts (“Live Free or Die,” and all that), although it’s about as racially homogeneous as Sweden.  Yet, New Hampshire had only two fatal police shootings in 2018.

At the end of the day, all of these things play a role: population, homogeneity, wealth, weather, culture, and more.  And some results may depend on thresholds rather than spectra.  Maybe something clicks when at a certain degree of diversity or of gun ownership or of socialism.  We can only make recourse to logic and suggest that, in the current mix of the United States, asking police to enforce more rules will have a different effect than it has elsewhere and would seem likely to increase interactions that go bad.

Ultimately, however, we come back to complex, fundamental questions:  Do we want to give up everything that makes the United States the United States in order to reduce the number of fatal shootings by police?  For my part, I’d rather address this problem by becoming more American, and to me, that means allowing more freedom while reversing the deterioration of our culture, which has made self-limitation less valued and therefore more difficult.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re stuck.  For example, James Kennedy and I found something resembling common ground if changes go in the right order.  Rather than “defund the police and we’ll find something else to do with the money,” one could argue that, say, lead paint abatement has among its benefits a reduction in crime, and we can fund such a program by reducing police budgets, which we can do by reducing the number of crimes.

Moreover, we can do that state by state.  Implementing policies in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island based on the comparative statistics of Arizona or California (114 shootings in 2018) unnecessarily restricts rights and forecloses the possibility of real diversity, wherein people get to choose to live in very different ways.



  • Christopher C. Reed

    Demographics are everything. Sweden has categories of crime that we don’t; grenade attacks. Yet.
    In France, auto insurance claim forms have a checkbox for cause of loss; car was firebombed.