Fact-checks inspired by Ferguson, one year later
On Aug. 9, 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenger, in Ferguson, Mo. The city of Ferguson, at the time a black-majority city with a white-majority police force, became synonymous with racial inequality.
The shooting and protests that followed -- including after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson -- led to passionate debates about race and police shootings of civilians. These debates continued amid other deaths of African-Americans after interactions with law enforcement, including the recent death Sandra Bland, who was found dead from an alleged suicide in a Texas jail cell after a routine traffic stop in July led to her arrest.
Here’s a look back at some of our top fact-checks about issues related to Ferguson, police and race:
Race and crime stats
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani denied that there was inequality at work, claiming in November, "The conviction rate is almost exactly the same" for whites and blacks who commit murder. But there’s absolutely no data to back that up. PunditFact rated his statement False.
Giuliani also 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 white are killed by other whites. PunditFact rated the statement Mostly True.
Giuliani’s claim was similar to ones made after the death of a black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, at the hands of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2013. PolitiFact Florida examined statistics on black and black murders and updated its report in 2015.
Fran Lebowitz had plenty of criticism of Giuliani when she was invited to speak with HBO host Bill Maher in February, after Giuliani questioned President Barack Obama’s love for the United States.
She turned the subject to shootings of black people during Giuliani’s tenure: "Not a single unarmed white person has been shot by the police" in New York in about 45 years.
PunditFact was unable to get complete data from New York police. However, studies from the 1970s suggest police shot unarmed white people in addition to other races. While it is accurate to say blacks are shot at more often by police than whites, Lebowitz exaggerated by saying "not a single unarmed white person has been shot by the police" since she had lived in New York. We rated this claim False.
After the shooting death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in May, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said that due to "over-incarceration … in 1950, two out of three young black men were in the workforce. Today, it's one out of three black men are in the workforce."
Incarceration has made it harder for many young black men to find jobs. However, the decline in employment rates for young black men stems at least partially from improved educational opportunities -- which is generally a positive development -- and the data he offers specifically excludes currently incarcerated individuals. We rated his statement Half True.
Militarization of police
In a Time magazine column, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. said big government is to blame for the trend of local police officers armed with tanks.
"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. (In May, Obama announced he was barring the federal government from handing over certain types of military equipment to local police agencies.)
Comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, said that Keene, N.H., requested a "military-grade armored personnel truck," citing their annual Pumpkin Festival as "a possible target" for terrorists.
Keene’s mayor said the city had a variety of reasons for seeking the BearCat, but Oliver was correct to state that the city cited the Pumpkin Festival as a possible target for terrorists. We rated Oliver’s claim True.
Oliver also said "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. We rated the claim Mostly True.
We fact-checked additional claims related to other high-profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement including Freddie Gray, who died following an April 12 arrest in Baltimore.
When asked about Gray’s death, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush turned the subject to poverty, saying, "There are more poor people today as a percentage of our population than the 1970s."
Bush’s figures are correct based on the official poverty rate, which showed the rate was 14.5 percent in 2013, while during the 1970s the range was between 11.7 and 12.6 percent.
Some poverty researchers say the official poverty rate between the 1970s and now doesn’t take into account certain benefits that help poor people, such as food assistance and tax credits.
Still, we rated his claim Mostly True.
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