Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Red Line

Facts About Police Behavior Matter

The News Division of The Wall Street Journal Charged The Journal’s Opinion Staff With “Disregard of Evidence”... It Was News Which Was Guilty of That Charge

In his nomination acceptance speech, Democrat Joe Biden cited “systemic racism” as an established fact, despite that the evidence does not support that sweeping notion -- most significantly, not in policing. Such loose talk is incendiary.

This summer, the same talk raged inside The Wall Street Journal, eventually spilling into public view. Almost three hundred members of the News division signed a letter to Journal CEO Almar Latour alleging “lack of fact-checking and transparency and apparent disregard of evidence” in the Opinion division, primarily concerning the early June publication of an op-ed by Heather Mac Donald entitled The Myth of Systemic Police Racism.

In the interest of full disclosure, The Journal’s Opinion section has published several of my opinion columns.

Each word in the headline of Mac Donald’s op-ed is important. The title does not call police racism a myth, just systemic police racism. It does not say there are no racial differences, or disparities, in policing.

The headline frames assertively, but fairly and accurately, the column’s central statement that “a solid body of evidence finds no structural bias.”

The News department accused Mac Donald of “cherry picking” a study by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. by referencing only Fryer’s finding of no racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) while making no mention of Fryer’s finding of substantial racial disparities in police use of non-lethal force.

Well, in mid-June, Opinion published an op-ed by Fryer, giving him the opportunity to outline his differing findings on FOIS versus use of non-lethal force and to say “People who invoke our work to argue that systemic racism is a myth conveniently ignore these statistics.”

Yet, in the next sentence, Fryer said “Racism may explain the findings, but statistical evidence doesn’t prove it. As economists, we don’t get to label unexplained racial disparities ‘racism.’” Sure sounds like Mac Donald’s argument, which Fryer had just criticized.

The News department also complained that Mac Donald mischaracterized a 2019 study (Johnson and Cesario) which found that minority victims were not more likely to have been shot by White officers.

In April 2020, the authors reconfirmed their findings but corrected an overreaching sentence in the study’s “significance statement,” changing “White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians…” to say a White officer’s victim “was not more likely to be of a racial minority.”

The change was necessary to recognize that “likelihood,” or probability, of being shot must include data about shots and “non-shots,” just as coin toss probability requires data for both heads and tails, and, since the study’s database was comprised only of fatal “shots” (not even including non-fatal shots) they couldn’t speak to probability of possible future FOIS outcomes, but only about the characteristics of actual FOIS outcomes.

Nevertheless, this more accurate and limited portrayal of their findings did not alter the fact that the authors did not find racial bias. Confoundingly, the authors “retracted” their study (whatever that means) in July, because “our work has continued to be cited as providing support for the idea that there are no racial biases in fatal shootings, or in policing in general.”

Except that, as a study that attempted to find racial bias in FOIS and did not, their work does support previous evidence (including Fryer’s) not finding racial biases in FOIS.  

Continue Reading:

Sign Up For Weekly Alerts

There will be a new Featured Column every week to 10 days. Sign up to receive an email alert when it posts. In the meantime, please visit The Red Line to see a new Column of the Day every day.