Fact-checking Ferguson and police issues in 2014

A family visits a makeshift memorial for two New York City police officers killed on Dec. 20. (New York Times Photo)
A family visits a makeshift memorial for two New York City police officers killed on Dec. 20. (New York Times Photo)

Perhaps no other news event drew more attention this year than the deadly August shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson.

The shooting and ensuing protests — which rekindled in November after a grand jury chose not to charge Wilson — sparked debates about race relations in the United States, the militarization of local law enforcement and officer involved shootings. They were amplified by several other deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police around the country.

As the year ended, police officers themselves became victims of violence with the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers on Dec. 20. The shooter, who killed himself, was a man with a history of criminal activity and mental instability who had also expressed hatred for police.

We fact-checked about a dozen statements related to the events of the last four months. Here’s a look back at some of our findings.

Blacks and police shootings

In the aftermath of Brown’s death, there was an intense back-and-forth between civil rights advocates and defenders of law enforcement over police use of force. We discovered that the issue was a tough one to fact-check because the available data is quite flawed.

After the grand jury decision, National Urban League president Marc Morial said, "The number of killings of citizens by police is at a two-decade high."

Morial was quoting a USA Today analysis based on FBI statistics. In that sense, Morial seemed to have good sources. But digging deeper showed the information is hardly reliable.

Only a fraction of law enforcement agencies provide data on police shootings to the FBI, and the agencies report changes every year. This skews the data significantly, and experts said it couldn’t be used to draw any accurate conclusions. We rated the claim Half True.

Along those lines, Bill O’Reilly used similar data to combat the notion that blacks are disproportionately killed by law enforcement.

"In the past 50 years, the rate of black Americans killed by police has dropped 70 percent," O’Reilly said. "In 2012, 123 African-Americans were shot dead by police. There are currently more than 43 million blacks living in the U.S.A. Same year, 326 whites were killed by police bullets. Those are the latest stats available."

In addition to the reporting problems highlighted above, the number of white people fatally shot by police in 2012 is substantially off if you account for white Hispanics (which are included in the 326 figure he cited) — a group O’Reilly did not seem to have in mind during his rant about race relations between blacks and whites. As it was, O’Reilly received a Mostly False.

Also on the topic, author Marc Lamont Hill claimed police killed an unarmed black individual "every 28 hours." He referenced a report issued by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and said "that every 28 hours an unarmed black person is killed."

Not only was the report not an academic work, it included in its count deaths that were not the result of police killings. Further, the report only classified 136 of 313 deaths as unarmed, which does not support his claim that an unarmed black person is shot by police every 28 hours. We rated the claim False.

Race and crime stats

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was an outspoken advocate of police throughout the fallout, and shifted blame to the black community.

In one instance, Giuliani claimed, "The conviction rate is almost exactly the same" for whites and blacks who commit murder. There’s absolutely no data to back that up. PunditFact said it was False.

On another point, Giuliani said, "93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks." The statement is accurate, but it doesn’t mean that much. Almost all crime committed is intraracial. For example, the vast majority of whites, 84 percent, are killed by other whites. The statement was rated Mostly True, but with that caveat.

Finally on this topic, PunditFact checked Fox News pundit Juan Williams’ claim that the "No. 1 cause of death, young black men 15 to 34 — murder. Who’s committing the murder? Not police. Other black men."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide was indeed the No. 1 killer of black men between the ages of 15 and 34 in 2011, the most recent year with statistics available. Accidents were the second leading cause of death. PunditFact rated the claim True.

Militarization of police

Pictures of heavily armed officers in tanks permeated the media during the  year, leading Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to wonder if police forces have become too militarized.

In a Time magazine column, Paul said big government’s to blame for this trend.

"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies," he wrote.

We found that the federal  government’s 1033 program gives surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, which has contributed to police militarization. It should be noted, though, that police culture shifted toward militarization for a number of reasons over the past 40 years. Washington might not be the cause of police militarization, but it does incentivize and allow that culture to continue. The statement was rated True.

Comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, chimed in on the subject, noting that, "The number of SWAT raids have gone up by 1,400 percent since the 1980s."

In a field short on comprehensive data, these were the best figures available. Still, it’s worth noting that the data ends in 2000, and we don’t know for sure what the level is today. On balance, we rated the claim Mostly True.

Giuliani on propaganda ‘that everyone should hate the police’

After the deaths of two police officers in New York City on Dec. 20, Giuliani appeared on Fox News and blamed President Barack Obama for anti-police "propaganda" that eventually led to their shooting.

"We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police," Giuliani said. "The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion: The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong."

Actually, Obama has said nothing of the kind. Throughout all of his comments since August, Obama has continuously encouraged people to work with the police to find solutions to public mistrust. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of law enforcement in communities of color and the fact that police officers have a dangerous job. We rated Giuliani’s comments that Obama encouraged hatred of the police as Pants on Fire.