If a Congressman Says It, It Must Be True

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Remember Senator Joe McCarthy, the one who did so much to inspire trust and faith in our federal representatives by waving blank sheets of paper around and saying with angry sincerity and absolute conviction, “I have here a list of every communist…?” Remember him?

Nothing has changed.

I watched Face the Nation yesterday morning, and Bob Schieffer was interviewing Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) about America’s race problems, and specifically about the distrust black people are reported to have of police officers generally, and white police officers in particular. Rep. Cummings made the following statement:

“One survey said that of the 400 or so deaths from police officers with guns, 96% of them were white officers killing African Americans.”

That caught my attention.

According the US Census Bureau, approximately 65% to 75% of Americans are white, while somewhere between 12% to 16% are African American. (Believe it or not, these figures vary, but the most recent numbers I could find were 65% and 16%, respectively.) So, according to Rep. Cummings, if 96% of all fatal police shootings are of black men by white officers, that is indeed a damning figure. Mr. Cummings’ unstated implication would be that either: 1) all but a tiny four percent of all violent criminals are black, or; 2) that virtually all police officers across the country, saving a negligibly miniscule number, are severely and violently racist. Either way it would speak very badly of one of those groups of people, and the context in which Mr. Cummings made the statement left no doubt that it was option number two.

Fortunately, it ain’t true either way.

I follow second amendment issues pretty closely, and ancillary to that are the statistics the FBI keeps on crime in America. The FBI does an admirable and dispassionate job of breaking down the statistics as carefully and objectively as possible into multiple categories: the kind of offense; the age of the victim; the age of the offender; the race of the victim; the race of the offender; the sex of the victim; the sex of the offender; the weapon used; number of crimes by state; and so on. One of the categories is Justifiable Homicide, which is then further broken down into Justifiable Homicide by Civilian and Justifiable Homicide by Law Enforcement. In 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available, there were 461 cases of justifiable homicide by law enforcement officers across the nation, and that is further broken down into the kind of firearm used or other means of death. (For the record, there are wild and shrill—but completely unsubstantiated—claims that the actual figure is much higher—around 1000 shootings annually—but since the corollary to that is a claim that the FBI is in collusion with local law enforcement to keep the numbers down, I regard such claims with great suspicion.) But, and this is the crux of the matter, there is no mention in any of the FBI statistics of the race of the 461 people killed by law enforcement.

The only other governmental agency that keeps track of such data is the Bureau of Justice, but the only relevant document I could find there referred me back to the FBI’s data.

But Mr. Cummings said it was a survey, so I did a web search of all the possible words and phrases I could think of that might direct me to such a survey. I found nothing. What I did find, however, was an article in the Washington Post entitled, “How Many Police Shootings a Year? No one knows.”

That’s disingenuous. Actually, it’s completely false in the context of a later statement in the article that no one knows how many people are killed by law enforcement officers each year. The FBI knows how many were killed each year; in 2013 it was 461. It’s disingenuous because no one keeps track of officer-involved shootings that do not result in a fatality. But again, the point is that the particular statistical subset of race in police shootings is not tracked. To quote the Washington Post, “Comprehensive statistics on officer-involved shootings are also not kept by any of the nation’s leading gun-violence and police research groups and think tanks.”

So how did Mr. Cummings come up with his 96% figure? The closest guess I can make is that he took the number from an informal USA Today analysis of the FBI statistics that averaged the law enforcement justifiable homicide figure over several years and came up with an average of 400 officer-involved fatal shootings a year, of which an annual average of 96 involved a white officer shooting a black person. My Irish math, admittedly always somewhat suspect, makes that out at less than 25%. Given an unpleasant truth, which is that although African Americans make up only 16% of the population, they commit a disproportionate percent of all homicides in the country (14,132 homicides by any and all means were committed in 2013, of which 5,375 were committed by blacks, 4,396 were committed by whites, 249 by other, and 4,112 by race unknown; in other words, a little over 38% of all homicides; it would be even higher if we extrapolated the known number and applied that percentage to the “race unknown” figure) 25% seems to show a reluctance on the part of the police to shoot violent African American offenders. Certainly it doesn’t show any predilection.

Was this just a Freudian slip of Elijah Cummings’ tongue, or was it a deliberate “misspeaking” (to use the Washington euphemism for lying) of a number? A cynical man, like the one writing this now, might suggest this was a deliberate choice, with that number carefully picked to provide a “misspeak” excuse in the event anyone did the math, by which time, of course, it would be too late. And it is now too late: most of the millions of people who watched Face the Nation will accept the figure and repeat it with wide-eyed outrage across the country until it becomes an accepted and calcified fact.

But while Mr. Cummings may be a malicious liar, that isn’t what shocks me about all this; after all, an honest politician is like a virgin prostitute. What shocks me is Bob Schieffer’s behavior. If a sleepy man at a kitchen counter in California, working on his granola and coffee, can be alarmed by such a blatant lie, how is it that a veteran reporter and news anchor can let such an outrageous statement go unquestioned and unchallenged? Why did not Schieffer at the very least ask for a source?

I checked this morning’s news sources. The Washington Post Pinocchio section had nothing about it, nor did FactCheck.org, nor has Face the Nation made any correction, nor have I found any other news source commenting on Mr. Cummings’ claims, so now it will spread and become an accepted part of the false meme that accuses police of “executing innocent young black men.”

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