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Are black or white offenders more likely to kill police?

(Reuters/Mike Segar)

“How [many] police get killed by blacks and how many by whites? That’s important at this particular time.”

–Twitter user @_R_S_S_

A reader posed this question via Twitter in response to a recent fact check on New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton’s claim that more than 100 officers are killed every year due to anger, hatred and violence. Bratton earned two Pinocchios for misrepresenting data on police killings. While more than 100 officers die on duty every year, accidents generally outnumber murders of police each year. Officers killed by offenders acting out of “anger and hatred,” such as ambush attacks, are a small percentage of officer deaths each year.

It was a timely inquiry, given the recent debates over race and homicides of and by police. And it was an important one, in the aftermath of the deaths of young black males recently killed by police and the assassination-style killings of two NYPD officers by a black offender. Are black or white victims more likely to be killed by police? Are black or white offenders more likely to kill police?

The first question is impossible to answer accurately, though many have tried by piecing together different types of data. The FBI maintains a limited database of self-reported homicides by police, and it is a conservative estimate at best.

But there is reliable data to answer second question, using the FBI’s database of police deaths and injuries. So we dug into it.

What is the racial breakdown of offenders who killed police officers on duty? Are black offenders more or less likely to kill police officers in ambush attacks?

The Facts

The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted program tracks the deaths of officers who were on duty, or acting in an official manner while off duty. The FBI publishes annual reports breaking down the figure in two ways: accidents and “felonious incidents,” which are deaths as a result of a criminal act. Felonious incidents include ambushes, traffic pursuits, responding to domestic disturbances or delivering search warrants.

There were 511 officers killed in felonious incidents and 540 offenders from 2004 to 2013, according to FBI reports. Among the total offenders, 52 percent were white, and 43 percent were black.

The FBI provided The Fact Checker a detailed database of victim officers and offenders in felonious incidents, accidental deaths and assaults with injury, from the early 1980s.

From 1980 to 2013, there were 2,269 officers killed in felonious incidents, and 2,896 offenders. The racial breakdown of offenders over the 33-year period was on par with the 10-year period: 52 percent were white, and 41 percent were black.

Of the 2,896 offenders in felonious deaths, at least 203 committed suicide and about 400 were justifiably killed on the scene. There were 161 offenders who were known to the law enforcement agency to have prior mental illness. There were 319 offenders under the influence of alcohol, and 228 under the influence of narcotics (those two numbers are not exclusive of each other).

The FBI began collecting the ethnicity of victims and offenders in 2011, and ethnicities from 2011 to 2013 are not yet reflected in this database. The FBI’s race categories are: white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, Not Reported and Unknown. The FBI could not confirm whether Hispanic or Latino offenders were included in the count before 2011.

The black population in America ranged from 11.6 percent to 13 percent between 1980 to 2013. Compared to that percentage in the population, the percentage of black offenders who killed police officers appears to be disproportionately high. But blacks tend to be concentrated in the South and in cities; some large urban areas, such as Detroit, have majority African American populations. About 51 percent of police killings were in cities and counties with a population of less than 250,000.

The FBI distinguishes the types of felonious incidents, so we looked further into ambushes, which include entrapment, premeditated attacks and unprovoked attacks. Many of the ambushes are the types of attacks Bratton originally referred to — ones incited by anger and hatred toward police. They include former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner’s rampage in 2013 to kill LAPD officers and their families, sniper attacks on officers standing outside their homes or barracks, point-blank assassination-style shootings of officers in a restaurant, coffee shop or patrol car, and attacks by “sovereign citizens” or members of militia groups.

There were 304 officers killed in ambush attacks from 1980 to 2013, with 371 offenders involved in those deaths. The percentage of black and white offenders in ambushes were about the same: 44 percent were white, and 43 percent were black.

Law enforcement fatalities have been declining since the 1970s. Felonious deaths also have declined since that time: Nearly 140 officers died in felonious incidents in 1973; in 2013,  27 officers were killed in felonious incidents. Ambushes accounted for 21.7 percent of felonious deaths from 2004 to 2013.

The Fact Checker’s analysis has limitations. There is no ethnic breakdown in the FBI data, and it is unclear whether Hispanic or Latino offenders were included in the white category, the unknown category, or elsewhere. There is not enough information on each officer’s death and circumstance to understand what motivated the killings — who killed whom why, and whether there are identifiable trends. Those details would provide useful context — for example, how “sovereign citizen” attacks compare to members of gangs targeting police. But that is not readily available, other than manually cross-checking the 2,000-plus officer deaths through news clips, booking documents and other sources. The FBI provided the database without personally-identifiable information.

The Bottom Line

More white offenders than black offenders killed police between 1980 and 2013. Police officers were killed in ambush attacks by just as many black offenders as white offenders in the past three decades. There are no simple conclusions or trends that can be gleaned from the database alone, but it provides context that based on the raw numbers, officers are no more likely to be killed by black offenders than white offenders.

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