Tuesday, September 9, 2008

get tasered less often

The Associated Press reported the following today on the use of Tasers by police in Houston:

Houston police officers have used Tasers more on black suspects than any other group of individuals, according to a city study released Monday.

Of 1,417 Taser deployments by officers between December 2004 and June 2007, nearly 67 percent were used on black suspects, according to an audit conducted for the city by a team of criminology, statistics and mathematics experts. About 25 percent of Houston's population is black.

The audit was requested by Houston Mayor Bill White in 2006, after several high-profile incidents. That year, Houston Texans offensive lineman Fred Weary was shocked during a traffic stop [for more on this incident, see the blog Tasered while Black], and an officer called to quiet a noisy music club shocked musicians and concertgoers. The latter incident was videotaped and widely viewed on YouTube.

A common white response to such race-related statistics would be to question them, and/or ask for more statistics, instead of seeing them as further evidence of racist tendencies among police. For instance, I've heard white folks say things like this: "Well, how many of the people that the Houston police deal with are black, compared to how many are white? If they deal with more crime-committing black people, then of course they're going to Taser more blacks than whites."

Such responses exhibit a common white reluctance to see the police from a different perspective--to see, that is, that others often have good reasons not to trust the police as much as most white folks do. In addition, the immediate assumption that those being Tasered are committing crimes, rather than being subjected to unwarranted harassment, is another common white tendency in regards to the police.

On the other hand, non-white responses to such police matters often come from a more experienced understanding of the following facts: America is still a racist society, and one that particularly demonizes and targets black men; the police are rarely exempt from common racist feelings, thought, and behavior; and the police therefore abuse non-white suspects more often than they do white ones. A common non-white response also often comes from more contact with police--and not necessarily contact that they've brought on themselves, given common racist police tendencies aside from higher incidents of Tasering, such as the myriad forms of racial profiling.

As I've written before, white people are more likely than members of other racial groups to trust the police. Study after study shows that the common police motto, "Protect and Serve," tends to apply much more readily to members of white communities than to those of non-white ones. It simply follows that if white people are abused less often by police, they're also less likely to suffer the common and easily abused control method of Tasering.

It may come as no surprise, though, that in response to the Taser study released yesterday, Houston police contend otherwise. As the AP story continues,

Houston police said their use of Tasers was not tied to race, but to a person's behavior.

"It's not a racial issue. A Taser device is no different from a radar gun. It's race neutral," Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland said after the Houston City Council meeting during which the report was released.

While this "executive assistant police chief" seems to recognize some sort of problem with the higher incidence of Taser use for black suspects, he also seems almost oblivious to the possibility (let alone the reality) that police officers themselves act in racist ways. Notice how instead, his emphasis is on, bizarrely enough, the "race neutral" character of the Taser device itself.

Nevertheless, another statistic cited in the AP article suggests quite strongly, to me at least, that racism within the minds of the police is indeed a causal factor here: "The study found that black officers were less likely than white or Hispanic officers to use Tasers on a black suspect."

While America's demonization of black men can instill racist feelings, thoughts, and reactions in black minds as well, the fact that black officers use Tasers less often on black suspects likely stems from a tendency to see more of oneself in a black person who's about to be subjected to the dance of 50,000-volts. A black police officer is likely to empathize more readily, that is, with someone who seems more like him or herself. And is thus likely to not suffer from the lack of empathy for black people that's instilled in non-black people by white supremacist America.

I should also add that Tasering is no mere inconvenience. Aside from feeling like, as one recipient put it, "the most profound pain I have ever felt," it can also kill you. That's what it did to twenty-year-old Jarrel Gray.

Jarrel died after being Tasered last year; his family's lawsuit over his wrongful death was recently dismissed by a judge. On the same weekend that Jarrel died, two other Taser victims also died in the United States--Christian Allen, in Florida, and Jesse Saenz, in New Mexico. I don't know if the fact that none of these three men was white is statistically significant, but it does seem bitterly symbolic.*

In response to the Houston study's evidence of racial disparities in Taser "deployment," City Controller Annise Parker, "whose office oversaw the audit," said this to the Associated Press: "We have to spend more time in determining why these racial and ethnic differences exist. . . Simply ignoring them or saying they are not significant is not going to make them go away."

Yes, by all means, Ms. Parker, let's arrange for yet another study. Let's appoint yet another "commission" to determine why these supposedly mysterious differences exist.

This all makes me wonder--is it so difficult to see, and to say, that the pervasive racism that makes life easier for white people also accounts for racial disparities in this common and often deadly form of police abuse?

*According to Amnesty International, "More than 150 people in the USA have now died after being struck by tasers since June 2001, 61 in 2005 alone." Over 11,500 law enforcement agencies use Tasers.


  1. Have you been following Pam Spaulding's Taser Files?

  2. No orange, never heard of it, great source. Thank you for pointing us to it. Good lord, taser-mania is worse than I thought . . .

  3. In my experience, many white police officers are afraid of Blacks and tend to over-react in certain situations.
    Many of my white police officer friends who have been brought up in a more integrated way seem to be able to diffuse more situations without resorting to an armed response.
    IMO - It's fear and unfamiliararity that drive the practice of over-reaction.

  4. To me, it's pretty self-evident that non-whites are treated differently by the police. There are many different reasons for this (historical, economic, demographic, geographic, etc.), but most of the reasons ultimately come back to race. It's just as self-evident to me that this state of affairs is wrong (on a moral level, not a factual one). That said, I do have to take issue with the first sentence of this post:

    A common white response to such race-related statistics would be to question them, and/or ask for more statistics, instead of seeing them as further evidence of racist tendencies among police. For instance, I've heard white folks say things like this: "Well, how many of the people that the Houston police deal with are black, compared to how many are white? If they deal with more crime-committing black people, then of course they're going to Taser more blacks than whites."

    These hypothetical white people ("HYP") are correct about one thing: as discussed before, it's almost certainly the case that there are more police interactions with black people than with white. However, the HYPs that the author is referring to are committing an important logical error: they are assuming that all black people that the police are dealing with are criminals, and neglecting all of those other reasons that police might be interacting with blacks more often than whites. This is OBVIOUSLY INCORRECT, although I'm perfectly willing to stipulate that many white people take this view.

    The author himself then proceeds to make a serious logical error- he assumes that because his HYPs hold incorrect views about why the police might be interacting with blacks more than with whites, the HYPs' larger point about correctly interpreting statistics is also incorrect. Now, while it is obviously incorrect to assume that all black people that the police interact with are criminals, it is emphatically *not* racist to insist on statistics being calculated and interpreted correctly. If the statistics are, in fact, flawed, they don't constitute to "further evidence" of anything other than the incompetence of whoever calculated them. Personally, I have zero trouble believing that a properly conducted study would in fact demonstrate that blacks were tasered more often than whites in Houston... but, at the same time, I feel that I have every right to question a particular set of statistics claiming to demonstrate that fact without being essentially called a racist!

    "Are non-white people tasered more often than white people?" is a deceptively simple question. The obvious and simple (and wrong) way to answer this question would be to get a count of how many people the police tasered during a given time period, and count how many were white and how many were not. This appears to be how the Houston audit was carried out. If more non-whites than whites were tasered during the study period, one could conclude that yes, non-whites were being tasered more often than whites. From there, one could further conclude that the police were targeting non-whites unfairly. While this second conclusion may indeed be true (heck, it almost certainly is true), this is the incorrect conclusion to reach from these data, because it ignores one really important fact: as mentioned earlier, non-whites are probably more likely to have interactions with the police, and will therefore be over-represented in our sample.

    To truly answer the question, we need to somehow control for this fact. The easiest way to do it would be to change our study design. Instead of just collecting information on taserings, we would instead collect information about every police interaction during some time period, and calculate three things: an individual's overall risk of being tasered during any given police interaction, regardless of race; a white's risk of being tasered; and a non-white's risk of being tasered. If the three risks are different, we could begin to think about concluding that race was a factor in an individual's probability of being tasered. This technique- splitting up a data set into groups for separate analysis based on a variable- is called stratification, and is a common way to deal with the statistical concept known as "confounding".

    Note that in this redesigned study, we were in the end able to conclude that the police were disproportionately targeting non-whites for tasering. How did we do that? Well, the two studies really asked slightly different questions. We originally asked "are non-white people tasered more often than white people", and we saw that our answer to that wasn't as useful as we would have liked. The redesigned study was asking something closer to what we actually wanted to find out: "are non-whites at a higher risk of being tasered during a police interaction than whites?" A big part of the art of statistical analysis is figuring out what sort of answer you'd like to be able to get (note that I mean that literally- "like to be able to get", not "like to get"), and then asking a question that will allow you to get that answer.

    From the short description of the audit in the original article, it sounds like they didn't do a whole lot of this sort of careful analysis, and used the more simplistic and flawed technique. That doesn't mean that there isn't really racial bias in tasering- it just means that the people who tried to measure it didn't do a very good job of it, and so the conclusions of their particular study are suspect. Asking questions about where the statistics came from and how they were calculated is not, in and of itself, a racist behavior. It's called "being an informed consumer of statistics", and is absolutely essential to an intelligent and reality-based discussion of a complex subject. Can racist jerks question a particular statistic in order to try and discredit it? Of course they can! But that doesn't mean that all people who question statistics are racist jerks, or that all statistics questioned by racist jerks are flawed. Good math helps all of us, and settling for anything less leads to nothing but trouble.

    This is all just my two cents, of course... take it for whatever it's worth. :-)

  5. One quick addendum: the more I think about it, the more I think that this might actually be an example of effect modification, not confounding- for the purposes of my original comment, it doesn't matter all that much... are there any epidemiologists out there who can say one way or the other?

  6. What simply amazes me as a white person, are the irrefutable historical facts the size of Mount Everest that clearly show America's social, judicial and economic orders have been and continue to be driven along distinct lines of race and class.

    The "race card" has been in every hand dealt to racial minorities attempting to participate in America's games of life, liberity and the pursuit of happiness for over 350 years. Under the disguise of "Equal Opportunity" and "Equal Justice Under the Law" in many instances our policies, procedures and practices are simply cloaked forms of aparthied.

    We have the utter audacity to rationalize our egregious actions against humanity almost at every turn based on perverted, self-serving views deeply rooted in Grade No. 1, Old Fashsioin Racism.

    The undeniable and inconvenient truth is America's founding fathers profoundly believed that African Slaves were 3/5's of a human being. That 238 year old belief is America's indelible legacy that has not been erased in our society nor our institutions. Hence, a racialized society manifested by historical lynchings, bombings, race riots and in 2008, Driving While Black.

    Many of us white folks still believe black people are intellectually inferior and as such blacks are just one step below our favorite pet.

    Racism is the power to control people along distinct racial lines... America's past and present continues to underscore that reality!

  7. I agree with Steve. I see a systematic disregard for rigorous empirical studies from you (Macon D), but this may be due to your ignorance of topics related to controlled studies, statistics, empirical methods, etc. I think for you to think better as an 'anti-racist', you should become more familiar with how to properly gather knowledge about the world, i.e., you should learn statistics or scientific methods.

    Now you might think that this idea is strange, the idea that statistics and scientific methods have something to do with race and anti-racism. However, it does, because race and racism is a part of our world just like anything else. More importantly, poor methods of gathering information are the source of myths, stereotypes, and generalizations about people of colour. A lot of what you have written that has offended me (or rather, made me think that you are an idiot) were errors of gathering data that led to a racist result. For example, your conclusion about non-white handshaking preference was based on your personal observation and speculation. Your assertion that non-white people's way of discussing race was not calm and rational compared to whites is based on your personal observation and interpretation. You took one anonymous black woman's words and assumed all non-white people thought the same. You asked for guidelines on how whites can properly generalize about the racial experiences of people of color.

    All these problematic comments of yours stem from a lack of understanding of statistics and how to conduct empirical social science studies. Yes, not understanding how to properly gather data about race and then drawing invalid conclusions about the differences between white and non-white people is racist. Assuming that the racial experiences of people of color *can be generalized* is racist. Learn some statistics. Think in terms of normal distributions, standard deviations, and outliers. Think in terms of confounding variables, controls, and that correlation is not causation. If you take these concepts seriously, maybe you will understand why your assumption that the racial experiences of people of colour can be generalized is ridiculous.

  8. Steve, thank you for your commentary, and I agree that what I wrote could have better acknowledged the points you make. I do wish, though, that you had asked if I really assume what you thought I assume before writing a false description of my assumptions.

    The sentence of mine that you quoted is not, as you wrote, the first sentence of the post. About the sentence that you quoted, you wrote,

    The author himself then proceeds to make a serious logical error- he assumes that because his HYPs hold incorrect views about why the police might be interacting with blacks more than with whites, the HYPs' larger point about correctly interpreting statistics is also incorrect.

    I don't think you can know that I'm making a "serious logical error" by assuming something when you can't know what I "assume." You might infer from my written words what I appear to be assuming about the matter at hand, and then you might ask if that is indeed what I'm assuming, but without doing so, you can't know what I assume.

    That said, I do not assume, nor did I state or necessarily even imply, that "the HYPs' larger point about correctly interpreting statistics is also incorrect." I also did not accuse those white people who make such a point of being racists. I instead describe why many white people who ask such questions do so--because, based on their more favorable experience with the police, they tend more often to trust them. In this regard, such white people differ from many non-white people, who often don't bother asking for such further or more detailed statistics, because they're often coming at the issue from a different set of experiences, and reported experiences by people they know, with the police.

    Again, then, the post does not say, nor does it, I think, imply, that it is "racist to insist on [such] statistics being calculated and interpreted correctly." You are correct in pointing out that more careful analysis of such research material than that conducted by officials in Houston would have produced more accurate and convincing results. But again, I'm not saying that it's racist of anyone, white or non-white, to ask for better analytical methods. I'm just saying (or at least, I mean to say) that it's more common for whites than for non-whites to ask for such statistics, because, again, whites often trust the police more than many non-whites do, and because non-whites are already convinced of the existence of that which many whites are not--much higher rates of abuse by the police of non-white people.

    Restructure, thanks for stopping by to deliver another one of your stern lectures on how I don't write against white racism in the ways that you think I should. Please note that my blog is not a scientific journal that publishes the detailed data analysis conducted by multi-person research teams. Yes, citing such research could bolster some of the claims that I make, but I don't think that referencing and summarizing detailed statistics and data analysis is the only way, nor even the best way, to tell white folks that a lot of non-white folks don't like dealing with the kind of shit commonly shoveled by white folks (and commonly dumped on non-white folks).

    As you know, I also disagree with the particular interpretations you've just repeated here of blog posts I wrote months ago, and with your general assessment of my methods of reporting non-white experience with white people.

    As you also know, I disagree as well about whether or not it's "ridiculous" to generalize in any way about non-white experience with white people. Let's agree to disagree, shall we?

    And I didn't ask for "guidelines" about how do so (or at least, I didn't mean to). Instead, as I recall that online conversation, since you criticized my doing so, I asked how you thought I should do so instead. And I then understood, and understand now, that you don't think I should do so at all--as you should in turn understand that I disagree with you, since I think there actually are ways of doing so without constructing egregious stereotypes, something that I think I've done effectively (as do, clearly, a lot of other non-white readers).

    If you have further commentary to offer about earlier posts, please do so in the comments threads for those posts.

    And finally Restructure, please get a clue about communicating with others, or at least with me--describing people you're communicating with as "idiots" does little to interest them in further communication with you.

  9. Hi, Macon-

    Fair enough. After re-reading the original post, I can see how I may have been putting words in your mouth and reading too much into your post. However, I do feel that you're generalizing about why "it's more common for whites than for non-whites to ask for such statistics". I have no trouble believing that white people are more likely to trust the police, and that whites are more likely than non-whites to be ignorant about differential rates of abuse by police. My personal awareness of these facts does not, however, diminish my desire for clear statistics, for precisely the same reason that both you cited in your response to my comment: good statistics result in more accurate and convincing results.

    I guess all I'm saying is that not all of us white folks who reflexively question sketchy-sounding statistics are doing it to help reduce our cognitive dissonance. As your blog does such a good job of demonstrating, issues of race are complex, subtle, emotional, and pervasive. As such, discussions about race can easily get bogged down and derailed by their participants' personal cognitive biases. Heck, this discussion in and of itself is a great example of this- you introduced this generalization out of confirmation bias, I misjudged its meaning and intent and jumped all over it out of some sort of selective perception, and we both ended up talking at cross-purposes about statistics instead of the original— and important— point of the article (police disproportionately tasering non-whites). Statistical analysis, when properly used, is a powerful tool for dealing with these sorts of situations in an objective manner... but, when used improperly, statistics can end up being nothing more than rhetorical ammunition and can muddy already murky waters. I guess that's why people like me get so persnickety about the media mis-using math.

    In these sorts of discussions, it's critical for all participants to be clear in their assumptions and statements, but it's also just as critical for everybody to try and give everybody else the benefit of the doubt. I should have asked you for clarification about what you meant before going into full-on lecture mode. It's an occupational hazard for me, unfortunately, but I'll try and do better next time.

  10. Thanks for the follow-up, Steve, and I certainly agree that statistics can make an argument more convincing, and that they can also muddy it and/or bog it down. I also agree with this statement of yours: "I guess all I'm saying is that not all of us white folks who reflexively question sketchy-sounding statistics are doing it to help reduce our cognitive dissonance." Yes. There's very little that ALL white folks do. That's why I try to talk about "common white tendencies," and to say "many white people do this or that," or "white people often do this or that," and that's also why I added a subtitle to this blog.

    By the way, Restructure, it's good to see that the good questions you raised about "Stuff White People Like" have been reposted at Racialicious. So glad I can say in this case, "I told ya so!" ;->

  11. I was wondering if you had requested that Racialicious link to me, but I guess not, from what I gather of your last comment.

    I have to respond to your comment in more detail later, but it was inappropriate for me to refer to you as an 'idiot', even indirectly. I do not think of you as an idiot as in "an idiot who wasn't able to finish high school" (your words in another post). One of my pet peeves is anti-intellectualism, including humanities people distrusting math and science, and math and science people looking down on humanities.

    When you wrote, "A common white response to such race-related statistics would be to question them, and/or ask for more statistics, instead of seeing them as further evidence of racist tendencies among police," I too found the sentence more than annoying; perhaps I had a reaction of disgust. I know what you were trying to say, but (1) what you say may discourage question-asking and the learning of statistics among the general population; and (2) you once called the inquiry into the inductive strength of the existence of white privilege "analytical gymnastics".

    Your sentence with "and/or ask for more statistics" was just worded poorly, and I still get the impression that you are a non-sciencey person that distrusts analytical methods.

    Anyway, you're probably right that non-white people generally wouldn't bother asking for more statistics because non-white people would have personal experience to back it up, but I think this should not be encouraged. Knowing more statistics is better, for anyone.

  12. Actually Restructure, since you were wondering, I did request it, and I imagine others did too--it's good work, and just the sort of thing they seem to like.

    You're right, I am a non-sciency person, but I don't "distrust" analytical methods of the sort you seem prone to engage in. I, personally, just find them less necessary sometimes for the points I'm trying to make here, and in other spaces, for the work I'm trying to get done. I actually am very analytical myself, just in different ways.

    From what I remember, the "analytical gymnastics" comment you recall arose in a discussion you were having with someone else on another blog, a writer who wasn't accepting the existence of white privilege unless he could pin it down with what seemed to me needlessly detailed and abstruse reasoning. White privilege seems so evident to me that I thought his particular demands for proof were outrageous, and maybe even intentionally evasive. I see now, though, that he (and you) probably just have different proof requirements from mine.

    Finally, I'm not so sure that "knowing more statistics is better, for anyone." Different brains process information differently, and some otherwise intelligent folks just don't deal well with statistics, and can also find, or feel convinced by, other modes of evidence and proof.


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