False
Lebowitz
"Not a single unarmed white person has been shot by the police" in New York in about 45 years.

Fran Lebowitz on Friday, February 20th, 2015 in a panel on "Real Time with Bill Maher"

Fran Lebowitz claims NYPD hasn't shot an unarmed white person in about 45 years

New York writer Fran Lebowitz offered harsh criticism of Rudy Giuliani and the New York Police Department in the Feb. 20, 2015, episode of "Real Time with Bill Maher."

Don’t get sardonic New York City writer Fran Lebowitz started on Rudy Giuliani. She is no fan of the former New York mayor and conservative pundit, especially after he loudly questioned President Barack Obama’s love for the United States.

HBO host Bill Maher got an earful on the subject when he invited Lebowitz to appear in a panel about Giuliani’s rhetoric. Lebowitz said the explanation for Giuliani’s remarks is simple: His policies have been racist since his first election when he campaigned on a nostalgic 1950s-era platform, and this racism extended to longstanding disparate treatment of blacks and whites by the New York Police Department.

"When Giuliani was the mayor, every five minutes an unarmed black guy was shot in the back. Constantly, you know, and it was always a different excuse from the cops," she said. " ‘He had something in his hand, I thought it was a gun.’ It was a candy bar. ‘He had something in his hand, I thought it was a gun.’ It was a keychain."

Maher said, "Well, that hasn't changed, and that's not just New York."

"In the entire time I've lived in New York, which has been many decades, not a single unarmed white person has been shot by the police," Lebowitz said. "Not one. Not one. You think the odds would be? Not one. So that is the reason they're shot, period."

Lebowitz made two claims — that "every five minutes an unarmed black guy was shot in the back," and "not a single unarmed white person has been shot by the police" in the entire time Lebowitz has lived in New York. A reader asked us to hone in on the second claim, brushing off the first as hyperbole.

Contacting Lebowitz

Lebowitz moved to New York City from New Jersey sometime in the late 1960s. Our rough math: She was born in 1950, and this New York Times profile says she moved there after high school.

So, to Lebowitz, an unarmed white person has not been shot by New York police in at least about 45 years.

We reached her through representatives at the Steven Barclay Agency. Sara Bixler told PunditFact, "Fran Lebowitz tells me that to her knowledge, this is true — she meant it non-hyperbolically. She said that if she is wrong, she would like to know, of course."

No simple data

The difficulty in judging Lebowitz's statement is that there is no comprehensive database that details police shootings across the country, much less New York City. That means there is no go-to source that shows shootings by race and whether those shot were unarmed or armed.

Reporting to the FBI is optional, and most of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies choose not to report. The gap in data gained prominence after last fall’s shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo.

The New York Police Department likely can prove Lebowitz right or wrong. But the agency ignored our calls and emails spread out over more than five weeks. Our request was "under consideration" six days after the first email we sent Feb. 25. NYPD did not respond to our March 26 query for information.

An early 1970s study

So what information is available?

We located a study of NYPD officer shootings from 1971 to 1975 by James J. Fyfe. His study, "Shots Fired," spans 700 pages and relies on access to detailed NYPD shooting incident records.

Fyfe broke down the shootings by race and by weapon. More than half of the black residents who were shot by police were carrying a handgun, compared to 48 percent of Hispanics and 32 percent of whites.

The white "opponents," as Fyfe calls them, were more likely to be shot while not carrying a weapon or while using physical force.

Crucially for this fact-check, Fyfe's data show 56 whites were unarmed when police shot at them during those years (1971-75), and another 34 whites were shot when using physical force. Of the more than 1,800 primary opponents of police shootings during those years, 19 percent were white, 58 percent were black, and 23 percent were Hispanic.

"She is simply wrong about unarmed whites ‘never’ being shot," said David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis criminology professor who tracks police use of deadly force around the country.

However, Fyfe’s report does include holes pivotal to our specific question. We can’t drill down on the circumstances in which the white residents ended up getting shot at by police. Racial categories are also very difficult to assess sometimes.

And we can't ask Fyfe, who died in 2006.

"Is a Spanish-speaking white person ‘Hispanic’ and thus non-white? Are English-speaking biracial people from immigrant backgrounds non-white?" said Candace McCoy, City University of New York criminology professor (McCoy and Fyfe were married). "New York is so incredibly diverse. It's hard to find people who are unequivocally what we consider as ‘white’ sometimes."

What NYPD data says and doesn’t say

NYPD has released an annual report outlining officers’ firearm discharges since 1971. That was a particularly brutal year for both shootings of cops (47 injured, 12 killed) as well as the number of people shot and killed by police (221 injured, 93 people killed).

Those numbers have fallen substantially since the 1970s. In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, three officers were shot and none was killed, and officers shot 17 people and killed eight.

We found several, but not all, reports online. And of the ones we found, many did not include critical racial data.

The last chart in the appendix of recent reports outlines "intentional discharges" of firearms during adversarial conflicts, as well as the race and age of the person involved. Most often, this is when an officer shoots at a person armed with a gun in self-defense, though there are also categories for shootings of subjects with imitation firearms, threat or use of knives and other cutting objects, blunt instruments, or a final category called "use/threaten the use of overwhelming physical force."

"Overwhelming physical force" covers times when an unarmed person physically attacks or threatens to attack an officer, such as gang assaults, pushing an officer from a roof or subway train platform, or trying to take the officer’s firearm.

We compiled the following chart, filling in blanks for the number of whites shot each year and how many were unarmed if reports were available online. We could only go back to 1995.

As you can see, many did not have the information we need.

Year

Number of whites shot

Number whites unarmed

2013

2

0

2012

3

0

2011

7

0

2010

5

0

2009

0

0

2008

2

0

2007

2

unknown

2006

no race data kept

 

2005

no race data kept

 

2004

no race data kept

 

2003

no race data kept

 

2002

no race data kept

 

2001

no race data kept

 

2000

no race data kept

 

1999

no race data kept

 

1998

no race data kept

 

1997

26

unknown

1996

32

unknown

 

Some observations after scouring the NYPD reports:

• Whites are shot at less frequently than blacks and Hispanics.

• The whites who were shot at by police were allegedly carrying a firearm, a blunt weapon, imitation gun, threatening others with weapons, or using their vehicles as weapons.

• And most importantly in this quest, several years’ reports did not include information on the race of the victim.

The last point was a bone of contention with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which in 2008 complained before the city council about the police not reporting the race of victims since 1998. The department was, however, reporting on the breed of dogs its officers shot.

"That the department is providing more information about the dogs it is shooting at than people who are its intended targets is deeply disturbing and must be connected," the NYCLU said.

We will note that these years cover some of Giuliani’s mayoral tenure from 1994 to 2001.

The department has offered more descriptive accounting of officer-involved shootings in recent years after pressure from the NYCLU and media coverage.

Other ideas

We searched news articles from New York and found no case that explicity fits Lebowitz's criteria. We also consulted several experts on criminology and police shooting statistics looking for additional information. 

James Acker, a University of Albany-SUNY College of Criminal Justice professor, pointed us to a New York Daily News investigation that found in 179 officer-involved shootings, 86 percent of victims when race was known were either black or Hispanic. But we still do not know what percentage were white with certainty and whether they were armed. Fewer than one-third of the people who died were unarmed, as examined by the Daily News.

Acker also suggested New York's vital statistics reports for deaths caused by legal interventions and then sorting by race/ethnicity.

Using that tool, we know 15 whites were shot by police in the city from 2000 (the earliest starting point for the database) to 2012. That’s an undercount from the chart above. But we do not know whether they were armed.

Contrary to Lebowitz’s broader point, Klinger notes, police violence actually fell under Giuliani. Victims in police shootings by NYPD cops fell from 90 people (29 fatals) in 1994 to 30 people in 2001 (11 fatal), Klinger said, citing his own records.

D. Brian Burghart, editor and publisher of the Reno News & Review, created his own website, Fatal Encounters, to document fatal police shooting. Using his database, we found about a dozen examples of former, off-duty and current New York City police officers fatally shooting white people or killing them with their cars in accidents from pursuits or driving while intoxicated and off-duty. But most were armed with knives, guns or other weapons, or were killed during vehicle pursuits. Many showed signs of mental illness. There were no examples of an unarmed person being shot by a cop.

Our ruling

Lebowitz said, "Not a single unarmed white person has been shot by the police" since she has lived in New York.

This was a bear of fact-check to wrestle to the ground, in part because of the lack of cooperation from the New York Police Department, in part because we were looking at a time period that spanned about 45 years, and in part because it is clear that African-Americans and Hispanics were clearly shot at by New York police much more than whites.

All that said, an analysis of police data show police shot dozens of unarmed white people during the early 1970s, the early side of Lebowitz’s life in New York City. While we wish we had complete data on police shootings by each victim’s race and armed status for the 1980s on, we don’t necessarily need it to judge Lebowitz’s particular statement.

It is very accurate to say blacks are shot at more often by police than whites. But that is not what Lebowitz said. She said "not a single unarmed white person has been shot," and that is not true.

We rate her claim False.

Note: This claim was fact-checked as part of a reward to our Kickstarter campaign to live fact-check the 2015 State of the Union. Thanks to all who contributed.