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Beto O’Rourke’s claims on African Americans and police shootings

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.) is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in this fall's election. His response to one of Trump's favorite gripes went viral. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement without accountability and without justice.”

— Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), candidate for U.S. Senate, in a video posted by NowThis, Aug. 21

O’Rourke, who is mounting a strong challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), became an Internet sensation after NowThis News posted his defense of the right of National Football League players to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police violence against minorities. Within a week, the video had achieved 44 million views across various platforms.

A reader questioned a section of this quote — that unarmed black children are being killed at a “frightening level” by police. At least, that’s how it sounded to the reader. But O’Rourke’s phrasing could also mean that unarmed black children are being killed, “including by members of law enforcement.” In other words, he might have been speaking more broadly about violence against black Americans, and police shootings would be a subset of that.

Here at The Fact Checker, we debated what was the most reasonable interpretation. The O’Rourke campaign unfortunately did not respond to our queries, which did not clear up matters.

We will examine both possibilities, using data collected by The Washington Post as part of its series of reports on police killings and homicide investigations.

The Facts

If you drill down and look at the data for unarmed black children killed by police, there is virtually no support for the idea that this happens at a frightening level. The Washington Post fatal-shootings database for 2015, 2016, 2017 and through Aug. 20 of this year shows no black children were fatally shot by police in that period. (A well-known case in 2014, involving 12-year-old Tamir Rice, would not qualify as “unarmed” under Washington Post criteria because Tamir had a toy gun.)

Even unarmed black teenagers (18 and under) who were fatally shot represent a small set. The Post database lists only three killings of unarmed black teens, two of which took place in Texas: Jordan Edwards, 15, on April 29, 2017, and David Joseph, 17, on Feb. 8, 2016. The third fatal shooting, of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, took place in Pittsburgh on June 19, 2018.

Meanwhile, six teenagers and three children who were white or Hispanic — and unarmed — were fatally shot in the 2015-2018 time period.

Over the same time period, 90 unarmed black adults were shot and killed by police.

While O’Rourke said police often shoot blacks without accountability — and the data backs him up — the white police officer who shot Edwards was found guilty of murder on Tuesday. Roy Oliver, who was fired after the incident, shot and killed Edwards when he was in a car with friends driving away from a house party.

The picture changes, however, if we zoom out and look at homicide deaths of blacks in general. In other words, are there frightening rates in which black men, teens and children are being killed in the United States, with some of those killings by police?

Here, we will use unpublished data from The Washington Post’s investigation of homicides in the 50 largest cities, which has shown that black men and women are more likely to be homicide victims and less likely to see their killers arrested than white victims. The data was provided by our colleagues Wesley Lowery and Steven Rich.

Since 2007, in 50 of the largest U.S. cities there have been:

  • At least 1,338 homicide victims below the age of 10 — and at least 815 of those victims, or 61 percent, were black.
  • At least 6,376 homicide victims between 10 and 19 years old — and at least 4,571 of those victims, or 72 percent, were black.

In other words, 70 percent of all homicide victims who were children or teenagers in the 50 biggest cities were black.

That would qualify as a frightening level.

The Pinocchio Test

There’s little question the black community faces extraordinary levels of violence. But whether O’Rouke’s statement qualifies as Pinocchio or Geppetto-worthy depends on how you hear it. There have been virtually no shootings of unarmed black children by police in the past five years. But hundreds of black children have been homicide victims.

Given the varying interpretations of O’Rouke’s statement, we won’t offer a rating. But readers are welcome to provide their own judgment below.

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Not the Whole Story
“Black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement without accountability and without justice.”
in a video posted by NowThis News
Tuesday, August 21, 2018