Bill Barr Wonders Why Anyone Even Cares About Cops Killing Black People
Attorney General William Barr sat down for an interview with National Public Radio that aired Thursday. Most of the headlines focused on his insistence that he's not using the Justice Department to help Donald Trump's friends and hurt his enemies, his continued insistence that "Antifa" is doing terrorism, and his baseless claims that voting by mail would result in massive fraud (it would not). But we were struck by Barr's weirdass answer to a question about police killings of Black people, in which he essentially said it's not really a problem at all, because "Black-on-Black crime" and Blue Lives matter.
Rebecca assigned me to go chase down some rabbit holes on this one, so I did. My conclusions: Bill Barr is dishonest, the primroses are over, Fiver needs anti-anxiety meds, and this damn seagull keeps trying to get me to invest in a musical about Hitler.
Here's NPR's Steve Inskeep trying to get Barr to acknowledge maybe the people protesting aren't just random Antifa terrorists, that they have a legitimate concern about police brutality. Barr's reply is stunningly dishonest from the get-go, suggesting that everything's fine, really, except for Black people killing each other. But cops? Cops hardly kill any black people that don't need killing!
Inskeep: [Just] to pick one statistic, a black man in the United States, statistically, is far more likely to be shot by a police officer than someone of a different race. [Factcheck true — Dok] Why do you think that is?
Barr: Well, there are 8,000 Blacks who are killed every year. Eighty-five percent of them are killed by gunshots. Virtually all of those are Blacks on Blacks. I think that there are a number of the statistics on police shootings of unarmed, unarmed individuals are not skewed toward the African American. There are many whites who are shot unarmed by police. Now, those numbers, as I said, have been going down in the past. Five years ago it was 38 African-Americans who were unarmed were shot by police. Thirty-eight in a year. This past year it was 10. Of those six were physically attacking the police when they were shot. So these are not events that happen every day. I know that the media is very interested them, as everyone is interested in them [crosstalk].
Let's unpack this pile of bafflegab, shall we? First off, notice Barr's very subtle attempt to change the topic. Yes, most violence tends to occur within, not across racial lines. People kill people in their own homes and communities, but you never hear Fox News or Republicans talking about White-on-White crime. It's a fucking diversion away from police violence, and I say the hell with it.
As to Barr's suggestion that there's been a noteworthy drop-off in police killings of Black people, that's debatable. Barr appears to be referencing numbers from the Washington Posts's Police Shootings Database, filtered through a June 2 Wall Street Journal op-ed. That piece made largely the same claim: police shootings of African-Americans are so infrequent as to not be all that worried about, and certainly don't suggest there's any such thing as systematic racism in policing. Apparently Black people just made it all up!
As Politifact pointed out, though, after rightwing radio host Larry Elder made a similar claim on Fox News earlier this month, the WaPo database only tracks a specific set of police shootings. The database's goal is to track "records of every fatal shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 2015." By definition, it doesn't include non-fatal shootings, harassment, arrests for no reason except being Black in public. On the lethal spectrum, it excludes killings by off-duty officers, and most significantly, police-caused deaths from other causes than shooting. By definition, George Floyd's murder will not be in WaPo's tally of police shootings.
The WaPo database is regularly updated as new information emerges; between that June 2 WSJ op-ed and now, the tally for 2019 actually includes additional cases, for a total of 14 police shootings of unarmed black people. Suddenly, the six deaths of people who Barr claims were "attacking" cops are no longer the majority of 2019 cases. (Another 235 Black people in 2019 were shot and killed while armed with various weapons; the database doesn't attempt to sort out whether any deadly shootings by police were "justified.")
Politifact also looked at another database of police killings at Mapping Police Violence, which includes deaths at the hands of police that occur by shooting, as well as by other means. It also includes off-duty cops. That tally of unarmed Black victims in 2019 came to 28.
There are other problems with Barr's numbers, not least his suggestion that things have gotten much much better since the bad old days of 2015. Remember, WaPo's database only began that year, which appears to have been an especially bad one, so Barr probably shouldn't get away with claiming there's been any magical improvement in police behavior. The tally at Mapping Police Violence only goes back to 2013, but its wider count of all deaths certainly suggests 2015 was an outlier for police killings of unarmed Black people:
Finally, there's Barr's contention that six of the ten (really 14) cases in the Post's database involved people who were "physically attacking the police when they were shot." We have no idea where Barr got that number, but hey, 14 cases isn't too many to look into, and since the database helpfully includes news articles reporting on each case, we looked to see what details made it into the reports. In several of the news accounts, police allege that they shot the victim after an attack, but there doesn't appear to be any body camera or other evidence backing up such claims. In a few, there just aren't any details, like vague mentions of a "physical altercation" that preceded the shooting of Channara Tom Pheap in Knoxville, Tennessee. It would have been more accurate if Barr had said there were six shootings of unarmed Black people who police say were attacking them.
Another example: Police who shot Isaiah Lewis, a 17-year-old in Edmond, Oklahoma, claimed he'd assaulted them, but who knows? A delivery driver lady called 911 after Lewis's girlfriend told her Lewis was "flipping out" and possibly on drugs. Lewis tore off all his clothes but his socks and ran around naked for a while. When police arrived, they chased after him; he ran through back yards into a nearby house, and the cops said he assaulted them, so they shot him. No body cams. Buzzfeed News sure seemed skeptical about those claims:
Authorities allege that both officers were "violently assaulted" after they followed Lewis into the house. The officers then deployed a Taser on Lewis "multiple times without effect," police said. At least one officer then fired his handgun multiple times, striking Lewis [...]
The "injured officers" received first aid, and one of them was taken to the hospital with a "head injury," police said. The officer was treated and released Monday evening.
Lewis's girlfriend, Kamri Pollock, said police lied in their initial statements, which said Lewis had assaulted her. Nope: "He wasn't aggressive, but he was definitely trying to hide something from me, like something was wrong," she told a local TV news crew. Pollock said she didn't even want the police involved, but the woman insisted, and wouldn't let her take the phone to speak to dispatchers. That's one of those cases Barr calls a clear case of physical assault on cops.
In conclusion, Bill Barr sucks, thank you for coming to my TED talk.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.