Tony Keller is The Globe and Mail's editorial page editor.
If you're black in America, you're at least two times as likely as your fellow citizens to end up shot and killed by the police. But if you're an American of any race, you're far more likely than a citizen of any other modern, Western country to end up on the wrong end of a police bullet. You have to keep both of those facts in mind if you want to understand the depth of America's policing problem. It's partly about race – and it partly has nothing to do with race.
According to the count of police shootings compiled by The Washington Post, which is more comprehensive than anything U.S. authorities have produced, between Jan. 1, 2015, and July 18, 2016, U.S. on-duty police officers fatally shot 1,522 people.
On the Post's list of people shot by police, 389 were black and 739 were white, while the remainder were of another or unknown race. Black Americans make up less than 13 per cent of the U.S. population, but at least a quarter of those fatally shot were black. In other words, black Americans die at the hands of the police at a rate at least two times that of the average American.
If it seems as if police shootings of black Americans are an almost-daily occurrence, that's because they are. On average, five black people are shot by police every week. Unless something changes, those protesting against violence against black Americans are going to be provided with an endless stream of fresh evidence, generating more protests and more anger.
But even if the United States could eliminate the racial disparity in the rate of police shootings – even if police shot not one single black person over the next year – the country would still lead the Western world in shooting deaths at the hands of police. That's because roughly 75 per cent of the people fatally shot by U.S. police are not black. Relative to Europe and Canada, U.S. police are far more likely to draw their weapons, and use them, on people of all races.
In England and Wales, with a population of nearly 60 million, police shoot and kill an average of two people per year. In the United States, police shoot and kill an average of three people per day. And at least two of those three people shot are not black.
The use of fatal force by U.S. police is, by global standards, off the charts. An American is 20 times as likely to be fatally shot by police as someone in France, 25 times as likely as someone in Germany and 57 times as likely as someone in the Netherlands.
In Ontario, one of the provinces that keeps good statistics, there were 69 firearm deaths at the hands of police over the last 10 years – just under seven per year. That's a rate of 0.5 deaths per million people. The U.S. rate is more than six times as high.
Even if the number of police shootings of African-Americans were to fall to zero, the U.S. rate of killings by police would still be five times Ontario's rate. (As with many measures of crime and violence, Canada's record looks good when contrasted with the United States, and less so when stacked up against Western Europe.)
So why are U.S. police so much more likely than their fellow officers in the rest of the developed world to draw their weapons and take a life?
The statistics compiled by The Washington Post include anyone killed by a police bullet, from innocent bystanders to people committing a crime. Many of those shot by police were themselves armed – though exactly how many is not entirely clear. In 2015, according to the Post's database, only 10 per cent of those killed by police were "unarmed" – while 79 per cent were listed as carrying a "deadly weapon."
However, the Post's data relies in part on police reporting of incidents. And critics contend that the way police compile stats and classify events distorts the truth. For example, Philando Castile, the black motorist shot dead by a Minnesota police officer earlier this month, sparking the latest round of protests, did have a legal gun – a "deadly weapon" – in his car, though he never touched it. That shooting, and many others, could easily be classified as having involved a suspect with a weapon.
The day before the shooting death of Mr. Castile, Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, La. Police had received a report of someone waving a gun around in the area; two officers apparently believed he was that man. They wrestled him to the ground, and when they had him pinned, one of them shouted that he saw a gun, which likely was not there. Seconds later Mr. Sterling was shot.
Guns are omnipresent in the United States, to a degree unknown in any other Western country. Millions of Canadians own guns, just like Americans, but they are rifles locked up in their homes. Canadians aren't allowed to walk down the street with them, nor can they own and carry handguns on their person or in the glove compartment of their car. When police in Canada pull over a driver, the odds that he's packing heat are almost nil.
That's not true in the United States. Guns are everywhere. In some states, many or most of the people officers encounter may be armed. So it's not surprising that some police shootings caught on video look like errors born out of fear: In highly charged situations, an officer may imagine that he has caught a glimpse of what he most dreads, a weapon in a suspect's hands. To protect himself, he shoots first.
Policing in America is dangerous, but it's also less dangerous than any at time in recent U.S. history. As violent crime rates have dropped, the number of police killed in the line of duty has plummeted. And while the U.S. crime rate remains higher than other Western countries, it's not high enough to explain the rate at which American police kill civilians. The United States does not have 100 times the violent crime rate of Britain, or 20 times the violent crime rate of France.
The bottom line is that America's policing problem is partly about race, but it also transcends race. Most of the people shot by police aren't black; if more Americans understood how widespread the problem is, and the degree to which it affects people of all races, there might be greater pressure for change. But as things now stand, U.S. police are far more willing to pull the trigger than their colleagues in the rest of the developed world. Deadly force is still more easily deployed, and more easily excused.