On May 31, 2001, a white Seattle police officer shot and killed Aaron Roberts, a black man. The black and liberal communities, sensitized to cops killing black men by the Amadou Diallo case in New York and the Cincinnati cops' record of shooting and killing only black men, responded to Roberts's killing with outrage. The numbers, however, suggest that Seattle cops are killing criminals proportionately by race, not disproportionately killing blacks. Claims by black leaders and liberal activists that Seattle cops are disproportionately killing blacks are misguided.
Of the last 31 people killed by Seattle cops, almost 30% (I'm guessing 9) were black, while blacks make up only 10% of the local population. It's this easily misunderstood statistic that gets the Seattle cops branded as racists. [Since August 2001, Seattle cops have killed more men, some black some not.]
Black men, however, commit 40% of the crime nationwide, even though they make up 6% of the US population. Here in Seattle, they're only 5% of the population, so (all else being equal) we can expect black men to commit about 30% of the crimes.
Put those numbers together, and you get this conclusion: criminals in Seattle are shot and killed by the cops in the same proportion whether they're black or not.
You can blame racism for making blacks turn to crime more often than whites. You can also blame racism for defining laws in such a way that they fall especially hard on blacks. Those are different matters. But when Seattle cops shoot a disproportionate number of blacks, it's not because the cops are racist. It's because so many black men are criminals.
"But Cops Are Racist!"
I'm not trying to say that cops aren't racist. I'm just saying that Seattle cops shoot black men about as often as you'd expect them to, given the number of black male criminals out there. If we're going to identify racism, it's as important to recognize what is not racism as what is.
In Renton in 2000, for example, white cops stopped an elderly black couple in a sedan because they were looking for blacks youths in a sports car. They cuffed the husband and everything. They wouldn't have done that to a white couple if they'd been looking for white kids.
40%: This is the figure quoted in the Seattle Times, which cited the Justice Department as its source. I've never been able to find that exact figure again. I have found a US Department of Justice document [Download] that shows blacks disproportionately commiting crimes, but there's no figure for black men commiting a proportion of all crimes. Even given the 40% figure, however, that's still just an approximation. The real question is what percentage of confrontations where the lives of police officers are threatened are with black men.