“More white people have been shot by police officers this past year than minorities.”
–Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), interview on Fox News Channel, July 9, 2016
On July 7, sniper fire from a lone gunman during a peaceful protest in Dallas killed five police officers and injured seven others. The gunman said that he was “upset about the recent police shootings” of black men, and that he wanted to kill white officers. The gunman was killed by a bomb-equipped robot during a shootout with police.
The Dallas shooting followed deaths of two black men, shot and killed by police within 48 hours of each other: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. The incidents were captured on video and viewed widely on social media. Their deaths, and those of the police officers in Dallas, have further increased the nation’s focus on gun violence, race relations and police-involved shootings.
During an interview on Fox News Channel, Huckabee spoke about the lack of balance and perspective in coverage about police shootings. He said the conversation often jumps to race, even though more white people than minorities were shot by police officers last year. Does Huckabee accurately portray the facts underlying victims of police shootings?
Huckabee spokesman Hogan Gidley pointed to data from The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of police shootings, chronicling the most comprehensive database of police shootings than any government agency had ever done before. In 2015, Post researchers identified 990 fatal shootings, more than the twice the number recorded in a single year by the federal government. Through this database, Post journalists were able to take an extensive and analytical look at the trends and effects of police shootings.
Huckabee appears to have cited the Post’s findings that of the 990 people shot in 2015, 948 people were male, 494 were white and 258 were black. So using raw numbers, Huckabee’s claim is accurate.
But as we often warn readers, criminal justice trends generally are calculated by rate, rather than raw numbers. A per capita calculation of crime gives a more accurate representation of the risk of certain crimes to a community, rather than raw numbers.
In this case, looking at crimes simply as the raw number of white people affected vs. the number of minorities affected is misleading. By definition, there are fewer minorities.
When adjusting for the population where the shootings took place, the results were different. The Post reported on the 2015 data:
Over the past year, The Post found that the vast majority of those shot and killed by police were armed and half of them were white. Still, police killed blacks at three times the rate of whites when adjusted for the populations where these shootings occurred. And although black men represent 6 percent of the U.S. population, they made up nearly 40 percent of those who were killed while unarmed.
So, even though more whites were killed by police in 2015 by sheer numbers, blacks were three times as likely to be killed by police. Blacks comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population; black men represent 6 percent.
Moreover, the trends in the first six months of 2016 mirrored the trends from 2015. Black people were shot at 2.5 times the rate of white people. About half of the sheer number of people fatally shot by police in 2016 were white, and about half were minorities. Compared to the same period in 2015, there was a 6 percent increase in the number of fatal shootings by police in the first six months of 2016.
Speaking of context, The Post also found that regardless of race, about a quarter of people killed in police shootings in 2015 displayed signs of mental illness. This trend has remained the same this year. Also in 2016, more officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty than last year, and more officers have been prosecuted for questionable shootings, The Post reported.
We asked about this question of rates and per capita calculation, and Huckabee provided this comment through his spokesman: “It’s not me that needs to be ‘fact checked.’ It’s the Post — I only said exactly what YOU reported. My comments were 100 percent factual. The pure facts also reveal that 94 percent of those killed by police are men, so by your ‘proportional’ standards, the real movement in America should be ‘Male Lives Matter.'”
The Pinocchio Test
Huckabee bemoaned the lack of context and perspective when reporting on shootings data, but he presented numbers without context in this interview.
Yes, more white people than black people (or “minorities,” as Huckabee generalizes) were shot and killed by police in 2015. We used The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage to check his numbers and find additional context. We found that although Huckabee is correct on the raw numbers, that’s not the full picture and lacks context. When calculated as a percentage of the population in the places where the shootings occurred, blacks were three times as likely to be killed by police than whites.
This is the folly of calculating criminal justice data by raw numbers; blacks comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population, so there are fewer people in general who will be affected by a certain crime or another instance being measured. As we have repeatedly warned, politicians citing criminal justice data to make a point should be wary of how they are presenting data. We award two Pinocchios for lack of context and perspective by Huckabee.
[Update: Huckabee posted a lengthy response to this fact-check on his website, pointing out that it was a response during a short window of on-air time. Huckabee cited a George Mason University study to say fact-checkers “cherry-pick quotes to score partisan political points by branding honest disagreements as lies," but the same study found Washington Post Fact Checker was split evenly in Pinocchio ratings between Democrats and Republicans (2.52 average for Democrats, 2.48 average for Republicans).]
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