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Opinion writer

When you point out the racial disparities in, say, police traffic stops, or arrests, or convictions, the law-and-order crowd typically responds that these figures make perfect sense, because black people commit more crimes (at least per capita). But this is mistaken, and you can add new data from Chicago proving that.

At first blush, it isn’t hard to find data that would appear to support the law-and-order types’ argument. Often, of course, these arguments are rooted in ugly assumptions about genetics and culture. (There’s a common “13 and 50” meme among white identity groups — referring to the fact that black people make up 13 percent of the population but commit 50 percent of homicides.) But given that poverty and crime tend to go hand in hand, it’s also possible to make this point without invoking bigoted tropes. Black people commit more crime because they’re more likely to be poor, because of centuries of systematic oppression. Even when invoked this way, though, the different rates at which blacks and whites commit crimes fail to exonerate the criminal-justice system of racial bias. As I pointed out in a post last year, most (though not all) peer-reviewed studies have found racial disparities in the criminal-justice system after adjusting for differences in crime rates. Even after you factor that in, black people are still treated far worse than white people are.

There’s also a chicken-and-egg issue. Imagine for the sake of argument that police are disproportionately more aggressive in black communities. Perhaps when it comes to black people, a significant portion of police officers are too quick to assume criminality, and so they look harder to find evidence of crimes. They’re more quick to make an arrest of a black person for mouthing off or “resisting.” That creates an arrest record, which then limits the arrestee’s options going forward. And when the doors to earning a legitimate living begin to get closed, people get desperate and turn to illegitimate sources of income. Even absent arrest, when entire communities are treated with suspicion based mostly on race — repeated traffic stops, repeated stops or searches, and so on — it isn’t difficult to see how those communities might begin to see the law and the people who enforce it not as protection, but as the source of suspicion and misery. A study in Milwaukee, for example, found that when there’s a high-profile police shooting of a black person in the news, black people in that city are less likely to call 911.

But there’s also evidence that undermines the entire premise of “cops are harder on black people because black people commit more crimes.” Study after study after study has found that police are more likely to search black motorists after a traffic stop, even though those same studies found that white motorists are far more likely to be in possession of illicit drugs or weapons. This is true all over the country — in North Carolina, in St. Louis, in Vermont, in Nashville, in Milwaukee, in San Diego and in Boston. It’s hard to come up with an explanation for that sort of disparity that doesn’t include racial bias.

All of which brings us to the new data from Chicago about police and the use of force. As in other areas of the criminal-justice system where we find racial disparities, defenders of the status quo sometimes claim that cops are more aggressive with black people because black people are more likely to resist. Data journalist Rob Arthur crunched the numbers and reported what he found at Slate:

A new cache of data released by the Chicago Police Department, however, shows that the claim that black people are more likely to face police violence because of noncompliance is itself a dreadful myth. According to the new numbers, Chicago police officers used more force against black citizens, on average, than any other race—even though black citizens tended to exercise less resistance than whites. Under the same circumstances and faced with the same level of danger, cops tended to resolve the situation without firing their weapons much more often for white citizens than black citizens. This analysis was based on Chicago PD’s own descriptions of the incidents in question ...

Using the data acquired by the Invisible Institute, I quantified the level of resistance along a simple scale, ranging from passive resistance to attacking an officer with a deadly weapon. I also measured level of force along a range from physical restraint to shooting at the subject. I converted these levels to a simple scale ... Ultimately, comparing the two scales, officers tended to use more force against black subjects even though they presented less resistance than white subjects.

Arthur found that the disparity was most pronounced with respect to lethal force:

According to the analysis of the police reports, black subjects were deemed to present a deadly threat to police officers slightly more often than whites. But when faced with a white subject deemed to present a deadly threat, officers used lethal force in just 28 percent of cases. Meanwhile, officers fired upon black subjects in 43 percent of similar situations.

As Arthur points out, this is all based on a given police officer’s own assessment of the threat. Presumably, to the extent that officer reports are inaccurate, they would err on the side of downplaying their own biases. So the disparity is, if anything, likely even higher.

This comes on the heels of another survey of the social media accounts of police officers across the country. BuzzFeed reported that of the police agencies reviewed, 1 in 5 active police officers, and 2 in 5 retired officers, put up Facebook posts “displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process, or using dehumanizing language.” Many of the posts were memes that were unapologetically racist, or celebrated police brutality. But this isn’t particularly new, either. It isn’t even the first roundup of stories about police officers posting nasty things to social media. You can find similar sentiments in online police forums and on police T-shirts — even shirts sold by organizations formally affiliated with law enforcement. And there’s story after story after story about cops using racial slurs, cops telling racist jokes and even law enforcement officials with ties to white supremacist groups. In fact, the FBI has been warning about the latter for more than a decade. At some point, even the most robust defender of police has to start wondering if all of these stories are related to all of those statistics.

When confronted with figures showing racial bias in the criminal-justice system, the law-and-order crowd often puts the blame on “culture.” The more data we find, the more it appears that they might be right — but the data strongly suggest that we should worry less about black culture, and start focusing more on blue.

Read more:

Radley Balko: There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.

Radley Balko: 21 more studies showing racial disparities in the criminal-justice system

Radley Balko: Militarized policing doesn’t reduce crime and disproportionately hits black communities