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Fact-checking claims about race, crime after Ferguson

In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, a makeshift memorial sits in the middle of the street where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. [Associated Press]
Published Nov. 28, 2014

Television's talking heads spouted statistics about race and inequality in the country's criminal justice system last week ahead of the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. PunditFact stepped in to figure out whether their numbers were on point.

Police not often charged in shooting deaths

Benjamin Crump, lead attorney for Brown's family, had doubts about the grand jury's decision a day before it was announced, saying Sunday on ABC's This Week that the ground rules were skewed in Wilson's favor. Crump pointed to statistics.

"The process is completely unfair," Crump said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time police officers aren't charged when they kill young people of color."

Hard data do not exist for either the number of police officers indicted for homicide of a person of color or for the total number of people killed by police. That means we cannot say with certainty whether Crump's statistic is on the mark.

Still, a number of criminology experts said the point behind his claim is reasonable, though the reason does not have much to do with a person's skin color. It is rare for officers to be indicted at all.

"Since officers are rarely charged in deadly force situations, that statistic, although not documented, is probably not too far off and would probably hold true for nonminority victims of police deadly force as well," said University of South Florida criminologist Lorie Fridell.

Crump's claim rates Half True.

Black-on-black murder rates

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani embodied the perspective of some commentators who argue the Ferguson turmoil reveals problems within the black community itself.

On NBC's Meet the Press, host host Chuck Todd brought up the number of cities where the police departments are mainly white while the communities they serve are mainly minority (as in Ferguson). Giuliani aimed to take the conversation in a different direction, responding, "I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks."

This is a case where a statistic is accurate and well-documented, but it doesn't address key elements in the bigger picture. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 93 percent of black homicides were indeed committed by other blacks between 1980 and 2008. In 2012, the most recent data posted on the Web, the figure was 91 percent.

It's important to note that whites were almost equally likely to be killed by other whites. According to government data, 84 percent of white homicides were committed by whites. This was true between 1980 and 2008 and in 2012.

Experts have stressed that this is not surprising because most homicides occur among people who know each other.

On the other hand, blacks do suffer from higher murder rates than whites. Young black men, ages 14 to 24, suffer disproportionately from murder, as about 16 percent of homicide victims in 2008 were young and black. As a group, they represented just 1 percent of the population. On the offender side, young black men accounted for 27 percent of everyone who committed murder in 2008. Young white men accounted for 16 percent.

Giuliani's claim is accurate but needs clarification, so it rates Mostly True.

Conviction rates for murder

Giuliani entirely missed the mark on another claim about race and criminal justice.

In a Monday appearance on Fox and Friends, Giuliani said "the conviction rate is almost exactly the same" for whites and blacks who commit murder.

Neither criminal justice experts nor the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics knew of reports or data detailing the nationwide percentage of people who are charged with homicide and are ultimately convicted — let alone a racial breakdown for that question.

Related statistics only serve to highlight some of the racial disproportion in the justice system. A 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, for example, looked at felony defendants, who are charged with a crime but have not yet been convicted, in the country's 75 largest counties in 2009. That report showed African-Americans comprise a disproportionate number of murder defendants. Of all people charged with murder, 12 percent were white, 30 percent were Hispanic, and 57 percent were black. In comparison, African-Americans account for just 13 percent of the general population.

On top of that, Giuliani's claim about murder convictions amounts to cherry-picking and neglects to meaningfully describe real racial disparities within the American justice system. At 36 percent, black prisoners made up the largest racial group of the country's 1.5 million sentenced prisoners in 2013, well above their share of the overall population.

His claim rates False.

Edited for print. Read the full rulings at PunditFact.com.

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