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Another tragic police shooting

Will facts or political fiction prevail?

Protesters in Gran Rapids, Mich., last week Associated Press/Photo by Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press

Another tragic police shooting
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Two weeks ago, in a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mich., a white police officer fatally shot a 26-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo named Patrick Lyoya. Authorities released video footage last Wednesday, revealing how a traffic stop over a license plate mismatch elevated into a fleeing driver, a pursuing officer, a charged scuffle, a battle over the officer’s taser, and, tragically, the single gunshot that took the black man’s life. As facts still emerge, Lyoya’s grief-stricken family released a statement pleading, “We don’t want violence out there. We want to avoid any violence.” Thankfully, protests in Grand Rapids have been non-violent.

For many, this tragedy is but the latest piece of damning evidence that, as U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., has declared, it is “open season on black men in America.” Or, as LeBron James famously tweeted in 2020, black people are “literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes!”

In 2021, the Skeptic Research Center released a study titled “How Informed Are Americans About Race and Policing?” When asked “How many unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019?” nearly half of “very liberal” Americans estimated between 1,000 and 10,000, with 8 percent estimating more than 10,000 victims. About one-third of “liberal” respondents put the number between 1,000 and 10,000. The actual number of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement in 2019 is 13, according to The Washington Post. More than half of “conservative” and “very conservative” respondents also drastically overestimated the number of black victims.

When asked, “What percentage of people killed by police were black?” the distance between reality and public perception was just as pronounced. The “very liberal” estimated 60 percent, the “liberal” 56 percent, the “conservative” 38 percent, and the “very conservative” 45 percent. The actual number is roughly a quarter.

Some bipartisan confusion may be chalked up to the 9-to-1 disparity between media coverage of unarmed black police-shooting victims relative to white victims. Hardly anyone knows the name Edward Bronstein, who died under circumstances chillingly similar to George Floyd, much less the 3,000-plus of those identified as white victims of police shootings since 2015. John McWhorter observes, “We operate according to a meme under which cops casually kill black men under circumstances in which white men are apparently let off with a hand slap.” After weighing the evidence, he notes, “That meme is vastly oversimplified. … There was a Daniel Shaver for John Crawford, a Michael Parker for Walter Scott, a James Scott for Laquan McDonald.” McWhorter concluded, “Our conversation must be based on facts.”

Fearmongering rhetoric does not help anyone, least of all our black brothers and sisters.

What are the facts? Let us start with the theological facts. First, every human being, whatever the melanin levels in their skin cells, bears God’s image and has intrinsic and irreducible value. That includes George Floyd and Patrick Lyoya and it includes Edward Bronstein. It also includes all officers involved. Second, God takes no pleasure in death (Ezekiel 18:23) and grieves with us in all our griefs (Isaiah 63:9). We should imitate our compassionate Creator, keeping His command to weep with the weeping (Romans 12:15), including those weeping at the death of image-bearer Patrick Lyoya. Third, God commands us to “truly execute justice” (Jeremiah 7:5). This includes Jesus’ imperative to “not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John. 7:24). A Biblical worldview simply won’t allow us to divorce justice-seeking from fact-seeking and discernment.

Next, to the non-theological facts. Police officers shoot and kill roughly 1,000 people in the United States each year. Of those deaths, roughly half are white and a quarter are black. Of those deaths, less than 6 percent involve the shooting of an unarmed victim, averaging 25 unarmed whites and 19 unarmed blacks per year. Only 15 of those 25 whites and eight of those 19 blacks are not fleeing the scene. Nearly all of those cases involve victims physically attacking police officers, usually under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Given the 55 million to 60 million contacts between the police and the public each year, it is hardly truthful to describe it as “open season on black men in America” where they are “literally hunted EVERYDAY.” Such fearmongering rhetoric does not help anyone, least of all our black brothers and sisters.

Moreover, a Harvard University empirical analysis of 10 major U.S. cities likewise found no evidence of racial bias in police shootings. In Houston, for example, officers were 24 percent less likely to shoot blacks than whites. A Washington State University study likewise found that police officers were less likely to shoot black suspects than white.

Why do such facts matter? Because black lives matter. Because truth matters. Parroting the narrative of widespread, racist police shootings may win us the approval of a woke intelligentsia and our progressive neighbors, but it will not help us love our black neighbors who bear the precious glow of God’s image. Pushing false political narratives undermines our ability to fight real racism.

Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

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