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Why I was disappointed by the Jillian Johnson Facebook tempest, and why it really matters

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 4.25.51 PMUnless you've been trapped in Faraday cage these past couple of weeks, unable to discern the blue-light glow of your latest smartphone Twitter alerts, you've certainly heard about Jillian Johnson's famous Facebook fracas.

The first-term City Councilwoman was apparently taken aback at the reaction that her post about police and the military being the "most dangerous people with guns," as the N&O's Virginia Bridges notes in today's very good summary of the matter:

However, Johnson’s outspoken, activist style drew backlash last week after she posted a statement on Facebook as members of the U.S. House of Representatives unsuccessfully called for measures to curb gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists following the Orlando shooting in the Pulse nightclub.

“I am all about keeping guns away from dangerous people,” she wrote, “but I feel like more of us should be pointing out that the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers, and that the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling and Islamophobia.”

Johnson posted a clarification Wednesday morning, saying “state-sanctioned violence causes more harm” than non-state sanctioned violence.

Every action has an opposite and likely unequal reaction, and the comments -- circulated from her personal Facebook page to an audience far wider than she expected -- led to a predictable reaction from those in and related to the law enforcement community, some of whom called for her resignation.

And, of course, the comments section of sites like the N&O's web site were as banal as one would expect, with predictably-racist diatribes involving returning to Africa, or criticism of black men and fathers.

And, just as predictably, came the full-throated defense of Johnson's comments from the most progressive in Durham's progressive community, many of whom seem to be members of the activist community that Johnson has long participated in, organized and championed.

All of which has made for, I am sorry to say, a terribly unenlightening and unenlightened debate. It is possible, indeed far more important, to disagree with her comments without the jingoism and call to proverbial arms we have seen in the initial pushback.

But the progressive defense of Johnson's comments is also, to these ears, tone-deaf and unable to be supported by the facts on the ground -- as we note beyond the jump, the CDC's statistics find that homicide is, by a factor of 50x, a more likely cause of death for young black males than police action.

In a sense, this very debate is emblematic of the poor coin of the current political discourse's realm. 


Because the concept that police officers are among the "most dangerous" people with guns, while touching emotionally raw wounds in the shadows of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and so many others, is logically inconsistent with the sources, uses and users of guns and violence, in a way that undermines the very important point underlying Johnson's comments.

Because the use of policing power in the public interest is a necessary function of any division of government, and while Johnson shows great promise as one who can reform the work, the seeming eschewment of its validity and purpose could undermine that end.

Because the intersection of the fundamental tensions here -- the acknowledged misuse of power at times by law enforcement, coupled with the inalienable necessity of policing functions to exist -- makes it crucial that elected officials engage and not pigeonhole the subject.

At the end of the day, Johnson's activist background is one of the things that drives the passion and engagement so many citizens have with Durham's newest elected official.

Yet it may be hard to hold the reins of power and a picket sign simultaneously.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

First, let's start with what seems problematic in the arguments made in the initial post and the walkback that followed.

As noted above, I winced at the push from some corners calling for Johnson's resignation, or otherwise drawing a thin blue shield around the general topic she raised. That malpractices and violence have existed for a long time in policing is, at this point, incontrovertible -- yet there are those who seem to argue whenever police are challenged that the work is too dangerous, the sacrifices too great, for us to denigrate the mass for the acts of those who transgress.

Yet while I recognize and appreciate that there is a strong need for "policing the police" -- the notion that "the most dangerous people with guns" are law enforcement and soldiers is -- I'm sorry to have to be the one to say it -- completely indefensible.

(To acknowledge something we'll note below -- Johnson's comments in the Indy, a week after this controversy bubbled up, find her acknowledging that violence levels in the community clearly outweigh that inflected by policing. Yet I've heard versions of the same point she raised in other corners, and it's useful for a moment to put data to hyperbole.)

There have absolutely been cases -- Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson, and some would argue Durham and Raleigh -- where police actions or inactions have caused a loss of life.

Yet as BCR's Lisa Sorg noted earlier this year, January 2015 was the most dangerous, violent year in our City's recordkeeping, and firearms used by Bull City denizens were the overwhelming cause:

Guns, not surprisingly, were used in the majority of violent crimes: In nearly two-third of robberies, the suspect used a firearm. And 44 percent of the 1,336 aggravated assaults involving multiple victims also involved guns. “This is the result of people shooting at occupied dwellings,” Smith says, “often ongoing disputes.” [...]

Violent crime clearly occurs in East Durham, but there were five murders even in the western fringes of the city. At least one of these appeared to be the result of domestic violence; in fact, 10 of the 37 homicides were attributed to that type of crime.

This brings us to the victims, often lost in the haze of numbers and percentages. African-American men and boys are disproportionately harmed: They compose roughly two-thirds of violent-crime victims. This compares to whites, who make up 15 percent of violent crime victims and Latinos, at 17 percent.

214 aggravated assaults where guns were used. 37 homicides, the vast majority committed at the lethal end of a barrel sight.

Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who noted in a 2013 analysis the following causes of death for black males aged 20-24:

  • Homicide, 49.9%
  • Unintentional injuries, 19.4%
  • Suicide, 9.1%
  • A list of maladies ranging from anemias to cancer to heart diseases, between 0.9% and 4.1%
  • "Legal intervention," 0.8% -- defined as "Physical or other force used by police or other law-enforcing agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and other legal action. Includes legal execution and excludes citizen arrest."

So, if we want to get technical, a young black male is roughly 50 times more likely to be killed by homicide than by "legal intervention."

We don't have the data in this CDC summary to disaggregate further the category of legal intervention, but would note that this category includes those deaths that are considered justified -- including when a law enforcement officer is acting properly when responding to a crime in progress. 

Yes, some fraction of these deaths are doubtlessly unjustified. (Exactly how many is a more pertinent question than ever.) 

But it is also the case that homicides where law enforcement officers are not involved are far more common than the alleged iatrogenic deaths implied in Johnson's comment.

Indeed, this fraction would point out the necessity of policing (done right) as a form of common protection against homicide and violent crime, and to bring justice when such acts happen.

The above liturgy of statistics is, of course, wholly unnecessary to engage the topic, and the depth I go into here risks alienating, insulting or (to use a Millennial term!) "mansplaining" a problem that, as Charlie Reece notes in his own Facebook response to this issue, I cannot directly engage with as a white male.

And yet, given the nature of today's political discourse and our collective and individual easy-retreats to intellectual safe spaces, I feel it's actually necessary to put out there what the data show.

Because when it comes to this debate, there are other statistics being bandied about that lack much cohesion to reality.

Take one of the arguments made on a local blog (whose cite I cannot find at this writing) supporting Johnson's statement, arguing that deaths by police action far outweigh deaths by terrorists in the US.

By any stretch of logic, this is a patently absurd argument. (Police do not merely protect us from terrorists, e.g.)

Yet it is part and parcel of the level of debate taking place today.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Of course, there's a deeper argument underlying Johnson's day-after clarification, in which she notes that she considers the harm that "state-sponsored violence" causes to be greater than that from other forms of violence.

Looking at the protests in Durham in recent years, the pain of families like Jesus Huerta's, there is no doubt that the actions of police in Durham, and certainly elsewhere in this time of troubled community-policing relationships, create a great deal of real as well as psychic harm, fear and mistrust in communities.

Yet when I hear Johnson's comments about the greater danger of "state-sponsored violence," I can't help but wonder how much distance lies between her words and the very real conversations going on in a segment of Durham today about "divesting" from police.

To me, the assumptions underlying that concept are impossible to contemplate.

It speaks to a deep, permanent, structural mistrust of sources and uses of power that does not seek to reform policing -- it seeks instead to remove it.

As Reece noted in his Facebook post, it would be condescending of me to believe that I have all the answers -- or more importantly, that I know all the pain, fear, racial injustice and violence that those who have been ill-served by policing feel.

Yet I also know that the solution must lie in fixing both the immediate causes of the problem -- reforming today's policing systems, adding real community oversight, but also addressing root causes of inequality and disagreement.

Sometimes, though, it's not clear to me who wants to fix what's broken, and who wants to break things beyond fixing.

And the greatest worry I have in watching this controversy unfold is, a City Council member should be unassailably, permanently, immovably on the former side of that line. 

The most worrisome thing to me in this affair is, it likely leaves too much ambiguity around that question dangling in the air. 


When I see an arch-conservative elected to public office whose first desire is to slash and burn the very underpinnings of the body politic, to cut schools and environmental protection and libraries all in the name of some Grover Norquistian fantasy, I rightfully wonder -- what the hell is a person who cares not about the public goods that government delivers, doing in government?

Yet the same skepticism must apply to those on the left as well.

A Council member who is as passionate, intelligent and engaged as Johnson can be a force for remarkable good in encouraging reforms and changes within Durham's policing systems. And indeed, the selection of a promising new chief, pressure on body camera policies, and scrutiny of jail conditions are all good.

I am certain that Johnson will continue to press for such changes, just as her advocacy among others' has helped to cause them.

Yet comments about police being "the most dangerous" gun users, or speaking of the danger in the state's inherent policing power, come at a time when they're easily misunderstood.

Mind you, these come at a time when staff at Cocoa Cinnamon see fit to stage a workers' revolt when their coffeeshop partners with police on a thanks-for-not-jaywalking campaign.

They come at a time where there is at least a self-serious movement to divest in police -- a movement that at some level seems to believe we would be better off without police in communities at all.

(Frankly, the level of abuses within our own legal system even with its checks and balances makes me shudder at a system with even less oversight and electoral accountability, but then, I don't dwell in the fantasy aisle at the bookstore, and I won't dwell on this particularly policy fantasy, either.)

They come amidst difficulties in recruiting and retaining police officers. Could such comments encourage a striving, fair-minded officer to choose elsewhere, while a cynical, capricious LEO shrugs and stays for the paycheck?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Is it likely that Johnson literally believes that a person is at more direct risk from law enforcement officers in Durham than from community violence?

No -- indeed, Johnson quickly noted exactly this in comments to the Indy:

For her part, Johnson says she was making a broad point about policing and militarization to an audience—her private Facebook friends—that regularly engages in such conversations. "Outside my personal Facebook community, that message gets distorted and lost," she says.

"I don't think the police in Durham are more likely to cause harm to the Durham community than street violence," Johnson adds. "But I do think when they do cause harm—and they have—that needs to be quickly and effectively addressed."

I find it hard to quarrel with any part of Johnson's argument here.

Yet it is also a fundamentally different text and subtext here than the comment of a week prior. And it's those original comments that have been far too widely propagated for comfort.

More to the point, I suspect there are those in Durham's activist community who will accept the original comments as shorthand for the movement, the effort going on to reform -- and others in the community who literally believe this to be so, and see no hope for fixing a system they see as irrevocably broken.

The latter is a dead end for public policy.

And it's unfortunate that this affair will further foreswear some in the community to Johnson's position and perspectives.

This may be nothing more than a case of, as Johnson implies to Barry Saunders, comments among friends getting a wider, unintended circulation than intended.

Yet I hope this will also be a moment when, perhaps, we can remember the importance that perception has, and the important roles that community leaders have in, well, really leading a community.

You do not have to go back far in Durham's history to encounter some times of fairly terrible governance, and some fairly terrible elected and appointed officials to go along with it.

We have also had those who have been voices of reason, calm, compromise, engagement. And these latter officials have invariably been those who moved our community forward.

Johnson's strength lies in her engagement with the community, and she is not the kind of Council member to turn her back on protest marches and people's movements.

Yet there is a fundamental difference -- in tone, in contemplation, and in reflection -- between the work on activist front-lines and what happens at the dais.

Movements and marches are clearly very well-planned, yes, but they also ride a tide of immediacy and energy.

How many of us in our community, dear readers, were absolutely certain Something Terrible happened in that house on Buchanan Blvd. so many years ago? How many of us were on the lawn, with the pots, with the anger and sorrow in our hearts?

It was an open and shut case, everyone was sure -- until it wasn't.

Looking back, it was the great strength of Mayor Bell and of leaders at NC Central and Duke who called for cooler heads and calm to prevail.

(Frankly, the abhorrence so many younger Durhamites seem to hold for Bell's leadership sits to me as part and parcel of the Year of Bernie, Trump and Brexit, and the lack of taste we have for any form of compromise. Scorched earth over consilience, in all things in the public sphere; it leaves the nastiest, bitterest taste.)

"It will be very interesting to see how she balances that responsibility with her activist impulses," the Indy's David Hudnall wrote, closing his article in last week's issue.

It will indeed.

I only hope that should Durham have a real crisis in leadership or the public realm, that Johnson's voice will grow into one that can unite diverse voices, not divide it.



Danielle White

I do have to consider a point about which I suspect we (including the police) have no data: how much they draw their arms without firing and if it's done too often.

What put me into this thought was a traffic stop in a neighboring municipality a few years ago that began with the officer approaching me with gun drawn and holstering it before any words were said but after the moment that the officer could first see my skin color, gender, and vehicle make. It was apparent that the officer uddenly realizing that the person stopped was a middle-age, white woman riding a BMW motorcycle clearly meant vastly more favorable treatment that day.

Paolo Shirazi

All I can say when I read about stuff like this is: thank God for statistics. Thank God for all those groups and universities and agencies and organizations that responsibly apply the science of statistically-valid data collection and analysis to the issues of the day. Thank God for for all the statisticians at Pew Research and the CDC and the U.S. Census Bureau and the many others who can tell us what, in fact - within certain limitations - IS the case, every time someone like Ms. Johnson spews an ill-informed hate-filled opinion alleging something that is overwhelmingly NOT the case.

Anybody can have an opinion. Any person say anything that they want. Even those fortunate enough to be elected to office can draw from their well of personal experience (and their adaptations to that experience) to imagine and proclaim anything they like (e.g., Trump alleging an epidemic of rape by illegal Mexican immigrants). But sooner or later their half-truths, untruths, and outright lies will be found out if we are lucky enough to have scientifically-valid statistical data out there throwing the right kind and amount of light on the issue.

So, here's a datum for you, Ms. Johnson, by way of the original article: “The CDC's statistics find that homicide is, by a factor of 50x, a more likely cause of death for young black males than police action.” (Take a moment, if you will, to digest fully the truly exponential nature of Ms. Johnson's mistake of fact. There's not a ten percent difference between the two types of homicide, or even a fifty percent or one-hundred percent difference. Nope, it's on the order of thousands of percent. There's wrong, and then there's spectacularly wrong.)

Thanks to good data, we can know things like the mean income and net worth of those in the top one percent in our society, the approximate level of unemployment in our state, trends in surface temperature at hundreds of locations around the globe, the number of gun permits issued for semi-automatic weapons in the US, and even the number of police-related and non-police-related homicides among a particular demographic in our country.

That last datum is something that should interest Ms. Johnson. But I suspect it won't. Like most sweaty tunnel-visioned pamphleteers, I can't imagine that she's ever going to let some facts stand in her way.

Paolo Shirazi

Looks like I was a little inattentive to my sentence construction in my previous comment. I wrote "...the number of police-related and non-police-related homicides...", which might have suggested that every death due to police action involved a criminal act on the part of the officer (i.e., a homicide), which of course, isn't even close to being the case. I should have written something like "the number of deaths due to police action and those related to (non-police-related) homicide..."


Jillian Johnson will not get my vote next time.


Kevin, I am deeply disappointed in how lacking in nuance, empathy, and understanding of the world beyond data this post is. From the headline on, this article is a fabulous articulation of the utter disconnect between the life experienced by you, an upper-middle class white man (as well as your readership, most of whom are also white and upper-middle class), and the everyday experience of poor black communities in this country.

Unlike you, Councilperson Charlie Reece (who is, like myself, an upper middle class white man) took one small step toward a deeper understanding of that experience. He, at least, was willing to consider that his experience, data-backed or otherwise, is not that of huge swathes of the population of Durham and United States more broadly. He did not go far enough, but I commend him for his admission that while he may not understand the depths of distrust, rage, and tragedy in many people of color communities in our Bull City, his experience may not provide an entire picture. He trusts someone who represents communities that he does not. That is the mark of a great politician.

A page full of data, followed by vague attempts at painting a balanced picture (oh DATA and BALANCE, those great deities which we must all worship at the altar of these days if we are to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY. Never mind that the data is far from accurate, rarely complete, and often gathered and reported by those very agencies being judged by it), does not address the very recent and very old trauma experienced by communities of color at the hands of people who look like you and me. You see police reform, body cameras, community policing, and so on and so forth as great solutions, the details of which must be tweaked here and there, but that otherwise will bring peace, quiet, and security to all communities, just like yours and mine.

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, sir, but that's not the real world most black folks live in. It's not a matter of how many people are shot by police or by civilians (heck, by that measure, even toddlers are far more dangerous than terrorists).

It's that mothers of young black men must teach those male offspring not to appear too confident lest police take that the wrong way.

It's that those mothers live in fear when their 17 year old boy goes out to a party at night.

It's that that party has a dozen cop cars outside it, while the frat party down the block is left alone until someone calls in a noise complaint, at which point one or two cops show up and politely shut down the event.

It's that a seven year old black kid with celebral palsy must be dragged back to his house by his ten year old brother when gunshots occur in his neighborhood park, the police nowhere to be seen, then or later.

It's that the one of the best chances a poor black kid has of 'making it' in these United States is by joining the military or police. Or, you know, be a basketball player or hip hop star.

It's that a black professor gets accosted by police outside his own front door because he dares live in a white town.

It's that being black makes you far more likely to have your car searched for drugs; be arrested rather than let off with a warning; be roughed up by police; receive a longer sentence; be sent to a higher security jail; die in that jail, than being white.

It's that being white buys you protection, and being black requires you to say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir', then hope that the cop who just stopped you at a traffic light is in a good mood.

It's that white folks shake their heads and say 'if only she was just more polite to that cop' when you die in a jail cell, beaten the crap of, and are found hanged to death in your cell. But wait, that was a suicide, right?

It's that the picture that appears on the news is of you wearing a hoodie, looking 'threatening'; that the first thing that is discussed is what job your dad had when you were growing up and how that affected the time he spent with you, not how terrible it is that your swimming career be ruined if you go to jail, or whether you are mentally ill.

It's all these things, and more. Far, far more.

And yes, I am aware that you know these things. You know them as facts. You know them as bits of data. You know them because those loud, obnoxious activists shout and scream until someone pays enough attention to gather that precious data that shows severe racial bias in your local Police Department.

You know these as things that need to fixed. You have solutions, ideas, policies. But you do not know them on your flesh. You do not know them in your blood. Nor do I, and I am grateful every god damn day for that fact.

Because of who I am, because of the color of my skin, because of the accrued wealth of my family, I am grateful every day that people like Jillian Johnson exist. I am grateful that she can run for office. I am grateful that she can win in this wonderful city I chose to make my home in. I am grateful that she can represent those people who have given up on trying to teach people like you and me about their everyday lives, about why we are wrong.

So yes, the police are far more dangerous than civilians bearing arms. They are more dangerous in deeper, more insidious, more heinous ways than you or I can ever know. So please, retreat to your safe space, hide behind your numbers. The real world is far worse, Kevin, than what is dreamt of in your spreadsheets.

Paolo Shirazi

Yup, there's a disconnect, alright, between a lot of the data (empirical evidence) and your experience (i.e., your anecdotal evidence). And, as a social scientist, I know what I trust more.


I think it's also important to acknowledge that violence is a far more encompassing category than killing. Police violence runs the gamut from low level harassment, suspicious treatment of innocent people, unwarranted detainment, unnecessary SWAT deployments, non-lethal violence, racial profiling. It's extremely short sighted to look only at lethal encounters as if that is the only form of violence that creates a perception of the police as a menace and not a protection. There is no way to quantify, and no statistic that tracks, police harassment of communities of color. You can have a gun and the authority that stands behind that, and be really dangerous without ever having to pull the trigger.


This analysis conveniently ignores the soldiers/military part of Jillian Johnson's original post. How about some statistics on the vast numbers of people the U.S. military has killed, including civilians? The amount of deaths laid on the door of the state coupled with police deaths FAR outweighs these statistics.

Karen White

As a burgeoning social worker who works with impoverished clients who don't tend to have access to CDC statistics when they are stopped by the police, I recognize that Johnson is pointing toward fear of death as an issue, particularly in the face of the above mentioned situations. Here's the kicker... Data has to be collected and reported. Data is useful for debates. But, the data behind trauma and fear is not as quickly reported and connected to real situations, such as fear of an a who distrusts your entire culture. While I may not agree with the literal comment by Johnson, I agree with what an authority with a gun in one face represents to a community that is so often relegated to "gang members" and "thugs", people who aren't often invited to these lofty debates.


Part of being dangerous is the capacity to cause harm. That's why we're afraid of nuclear weapons, even though they haven't been used against civilians in decades. Police forces have far more capacity to cause harm than any civilian population. Military weapons and the ability to operate outside of the law is enough to make police forces more dangerous than anything they fight.


I read this supposed rational and logical response to Jillian Johnson. Backed up with government stats comparing police killings to civilian homicide rates, no less. As if the state violence that Johnson described is limited solely to police killing people outright. Never mind that the most common form of police violence that people of color experience is everyday harassment, whether in one's own neighborhood or while out driving.

I'm a so-called law-abiding citizen, respectable, college educated and everything. I still fear being anywhere near police. Because no matter how polite I am or how small and non-threatening I appear to be, on the wrong day with the wrong pissed-off cop I could easily become Sandra Bland or Tamir Rice. Because that is the experience of being Black in the United States: you are always seen as a danger to society. That is the experience that thousands of Durham residents have, and the experience that Jillian Johnson confronts everyday as both an African American and a city council member. Unless you know what it means to be feared by your country's dominant class for simply existing, there is no way you're qualified to judge the lives of those of us who do.

Khalid Hawthorne

This is argument is far more nuanced than Jillian or even Kevin portrays. We are still talking about symptoms to larger more systemic problems.
#1 - More police will not end black-on-black crime (or white-on-white crime either). Police can't prevent crime the majority of the time...they are there to bring criminals to justice after the damage is done. I could write an entire blog post on the multi-faceted root causes of the majority of these crimes. One is a lack of identity and self-worth of many of these kids...they have no sense of hope. Any inkling of dream of something greater was squashed out by society, a teacher or even a parent.

#2 - Blanket statements such as Jillian's are the most disheartening coming from intelligent people. Address the bias of police when they stop a minority. Talk about the policies of the previous federal administration which squandered an opportunity to attack a global network of terrorists with the assistance of every country instead of stretching our military thin under the veil of disarming a hostile administration in another country. Those decisions aren't made by military personnel. They follow the orders that come down from their leadership.

#3 - I want leadership in place that is pragmatic AND progressive. That looks to break down systemic barriers in the community. That is creative in reaching at-risk youth in an environment (school) where they spend the majority of their day for 8/9 months a year. The Mayor has initiated several programs over the years to try to break down these artificial barriers but they are only scratching the surface. We as a community need to dig deeper and beyond these silo's to serve the needs of these kids before they become crazy adults.

Why do I bring up the schools? That is where we can make the biggest impact! We should be offering kids a multitude of ways of learning versus trying to teach a fish how to climb a tree. Why does a school need classrooms? Why can't it be setup like a open technology office with breakout spaces? Why are kids forced to calm down and sit instead of interact and focus their energy in a positive manner?

In other words, let's start talking about real solutions and not offer up click-bait on Facebook...


Hey Everyone!

I believe Kevin's math is faulty. And since he (and commenter Paolo, and others) have based so much of their argument on the certainty of numbers, it really matters.

Here's the deal. If we consider only the CDC numbers that Kevin cites, we see that, indeed, a black male is 50x more likely to be killed by a civilian. But this number - 50 - is only meaningful if we have the same number of police officers and civilian population. Of course, we don't - and that's why Jillian's statement is not only true in terms of "cultural experience", but also "hard data".

From wikipedia (, we have around 800k sworn officers in the USA with arresting powers. As of 2008 anyway - call it a million if you like. Of course, many of these wouldn't be on patrol with a weapon, but still, call it a million. That means only 1 person in 320 (at most) is a sworn officer.

The reason that this is important is that this means that, from the perspective of this abstract "black male" subject, a police officer is 320/50x, or 6.4x more likely to kill them, than the average civilian. So, according to the numbers (supplied by Kevin), a police officer is indeed far more "dangerous" than the average person. This is a case where it's not just some nebulous "experience" - this is fact, right?

Here, I'll provide an analogy if the numbers are confusing. I'm far more likely to die of influenza than of ebola. Statistically speaking, worldwide, many many more people die of flu each year than ebola. But many many more people contract flu each year, right? Just because it kills more people overall doesn't mean it's the more dangerous disease. (In this example, ordinary people are flu, and police officers are ebola.) Which would you rather come into contact with?

I'd expect that Kevin should retract his argument and assert the opposite, since it is so grounded in numbers - Paolo and the others, too, I suppose.

Of course, as many intelligent commenters have already pointed out, relying only on CDC numbers of deaths is not necessarily a way toward a comprehensive understanding of state-sanctioned violence and all it entails. Police also assault people non-lethally; threaten people, at gunpoint or otherwise; use tear gas; stop and search people, perhaps illegally; detain people; and deport people. Depending on your point of view and your politics, you may find individual acts in these categories permissable, or necessary, or you may find them abhorrent.

Then, of course, one should factor in the other aspect of what Ms. Johnson was talking about - namely, state-sanctioned violence across the globe, including military intervention. If we start counting violence at the hands of US military personnel - well, then, the numbers start to become even more grim.

Statements like Mr. Reece's are really important because they stress the importance of understanding how other people perceive the world. But they can also end up being dismissive. Jillian's statement isn't (or isn't just) a statement drawn from the "experience of the black community" - it's also a statement that is backed up by the data.

I think it's a reasonable debate to be had about whether police (if we choose as a society to have them) are *supposed* to be violent. But using a misreading of data to discredit an entire critical discussion about the problems in our current police system is far more "indefensible" than Ms. Johnson's original post.

Ram Neta

if the most dangerous people with guns are police officers, then we would be doing communities a great protective service by insuring that they are not subject to the presence of the police. Would anyone like to volunteer their own neighborhood as a police-free zone?


As a social scientist with a Master in Social Work, I’m sad to say I could use this article in a research class as an example of a Secondary Analysis gone wrong. For one thing, Kevin misinterprets the data he cites, and commenter Ben provides an excellent explanation of how Kevin’s conclusion is false solely based on the data he picked.

Kevin also fails to provide operational definitions for “cops and soldiers” and “state-sanctioned violence,” and in doing so falls victim to measurement bias. The unstated operational definitions that he arbitrarily applies to his analysis seem to be “cops in the United States” and “violence only in the case of killings in the United States.” Commenters Allan, Salma, and Ben have highlighted the limitations of Kevin’s myopic scope. Moreover, his analysis is strictly quantitative, and I would argue that in order to most accurately operationalize “state-sanctioned violence,” a researcher/journalist/commentator would need to incorporate qualitative analysis to glean insight into forms of violence that cannot be captured within quantitative data.

If Kevin had used operational definitions that accurately reflected Jillian’s initial comment and subsequent clarifications, then he would have also included in his quantitative analysis statistics on physical injury, community destruction, detainment, deportation, displacement, and so on, as perpetuated by police and soldiers throughout the world. If he had integrated a qualitative analysis, he would have included commentaries on the physical and mental impacts of repression, over policing, psychological warfare, and so on, from people most directly impacted by state-sanctioned violence, such as what commenter YMC posted above. And if he had taken these necessary steps to perform a secondary analysis, then he too would have concluded that cops and soldiers are the most dangerous people with guns and that state-sanctioned violence causes more harm than non-state sanctioned violence.

From a historical standpoint, I feel like this article compliments the reactions of national media in the wake of Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech, in which King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Outlets like the Washington Post responded by declaring that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." I point this out not to compare Jillian with Dr. King, but to compare Kevin with those whose theory of social change was conceived within a limited realm of “practical” reform. As a result, when social justice leaders made strong statements against unjust power, these folks sided with unjust power, intentionally or not.

Disappointing. Here’s to hoping BCR will do better next time.

And I’ll say that I am proud to live in a city with an elected official like Johnson, who prioritizes the development of political power amongst those most impacted by systemic oppression. I look forward to voting more people into office who share her values.


I'm sure more fish are nibbled to death by minnows than are killed by the few Great White Sharks out there in the ocean. That doesn't mean Great White Sharks aren't the most dangerous predators around. Running across a police officer is far more dangerous for the average black man than some dumb teenage criminals who probably don't even know how to properly use a firearm.

Kevin Davis

I appreciate the thoughtful comments and dialogue from all.

I will note that it's interesting that I hear both of the activism perspectives I alluded to in the piece coming up here: (a) those who (rightly, IMO) note the feelings of terror and fear that many feel in the police's presence, and (b) those who seem to argue a broader philosophical point linking police powers with armies and the perceived illegitimacy of state violence as a broader concept.

Those who see in modern policing and military actions the misuse of an otherwise-appropriate state power -- this is essentially where my POV is -- would I think agree that it is crucial that society find ways to improve the perceived legitimacy and actual appropriateness of state-owned violence. It's hard to look at actions in, say, Iraq in the early 2000s, or US actions in developing nations during the Cold War, without regret for our country's actions. The same applies, deeply, to the findings of police misconduct in recent years.

I do think there is a generational divide of sorts that we've seen play out in the discussions this year of the notorious early 1990s crime bill. Like the racially-divergent sentencing rules for powder vs. crack cocaine preceding it, there are problematic elements in the legislation. I'm less interested here in the merits of the law -- it's far from clear that the crime bill was what changed the picture on crime, with lead's banishment from paint and gasoline are among the least controversial alternative explanations -- as I am in the generation gap in perceptions on whether adding more police to urban neighborhoods was a good or bad thing. (See, e.g., the NY Times' April 18 piece, "On Crime Bill and the Clintons, Young Blacks Clash With Parents" for an interesting coverage of both sides --

To me, that generation gap undergirds my reply to those who would argue that it is somehow self-evident that the views Johnson has expressed should hold sway, or that I am in no position to comment on a societal matter in which I, as noted above, do not have a first hand view. There is at times within activist movements (and this may be definitional for such actions) an ideological cohesion and unity that assumes only one worldview is right. While my personal background does not afford me their viewpoint, as the NYT notes, there are many who have other similarities in background, modulo age, who would reach a different view from either me or the activists who have been so engaged in these conversations.

I find tremendous common ground with those in this (a) category, and that's what I'm alluding to above -- that it's crucial for the good of the polity and society that we make drastic improvements to community policing and other uses of force.

I am certain there are those who fall into camp (b). That's a philosophy that I think is completely untenable with modern society in any way. The notion that all state-sponsored violence is inherently immoral and wrong ultimately challenges the liberal state. And it quickly leads down a path that challenges appropriate government powers of regulation, taxation and the like. I find no common ground for debate with this position, which runs counter to centuries of widely-accepted thought underpinning all free societies.


my anecdotal response is this. When I was 22 my elderly african american neighbors repeatedly thanked me for calling the police. When I called, they showed up immediately. They had stopped calling the police bc they felt they didn't show up or were racist when they did. Yet, they still wanted to be protected from the violence around them. My white presence and white voice enabled the service and respect they should have always received but had not.

Yes, it's racist bullshit. Yes, they still wanted the police to be there in their community doing their job.

Alienating the police (or the residents of an area) is not going to address crime or violence - institutionalized or relational. People have to be willing to talk, listen, and change their mind. I've seen a lot of amazing ground work here from Spirit House and FADE. I'd like the Durham Police to meet them at the table and listen. They have amazing partners in the community if they treat them as such.


Kevin, if you don't fix your math, this whole piece is trash. Sorry, this isn't about a "generational divide" - this is about the misuse of "hard data" as the cornerstone of your argument. What is left here when those statistics are taken away? To leave in print the claim that Johnson's comments are "indefensible" while not acknowledging their factual accuracy is unethical, at best.

Michael Bacon

I think there are a number of problems at the data-level with Kevin's argument above, which others (particularly commenters Ben and Anthony) have presented well and which I think Kevin needs to do a far better job of engaging with here than in his 8:20 comment this morning.

I've known Kevin and Jillian personally for a long time, and while I'm probably somewhere between the two of them on whatever mythical political spectrum someone wants to dream up, I'm probably closer to Kevin than I am to Jillian in general political outlook (not to mention demographics).

However, this statement from Kevin is the part of the piece I find the most problematic:

"Yet it may be hard to hold the reins of power and a picket sign simultaneously."

At this point, I honestly care far less about whether Jillian's statement about police is born out in independently verified data and far more about the general reaction to it, which I don't think Kevin has helped at all with this piece, and which the above quoted sentence illustrates most dramatically.

Jillian Johnson was elected with more votes than any other candidate in this previous election, despite gaining the endorsement of only one of the three major PACs. As such, she was far from some kind of stealth candidate -- Jillian's politics and positions have been on public display through activism and writing for at least a decade in Durham. Some of her positions I agree with, some of them I do not, but they were hardly hard to find. For people like Durhamita who are saying this loses her vote next time, all I have to say is, whom did you think you were voting for before?

Johnson got elected to her seat because of her positions and her activism, which her comment on the police were completely in line with. The way this has been treated as unacceptable or beyond the pale, with calls for her resignation or (most worryingly) a scolding and nannying public statement from the Fraternal Order of Police Durham County that showed absolutely no public awareness of this issue. Kevin's piece here is at least more balanced, but no single adjective for the full thing fits it more than "hand-wringing," when really no hand-wringing is needed at all. Frankly, the notion that a politician posting honestly held beliefs on a Facebook page is somehow worthy of the 3000 words of nervous worrying that Kevin has blasted out about the "appropriateness" of her opinions is infuriating.

Debating Johnson's policy and analytical positions is fine and expected and healthy. Debating whether she's allowed to have them is insulting and stupid and worrying and hard to not associate with some race and gender issues.

The fact that the organizations that represent the police themselves have weighed in with the same tone of, well, policing the discourse has moved me considerably closer to Johnson's position in the first place. The police, for all their heroic posturing, are simply paid officers of the city. If they feel they can publicly scold and shame Johnson for simply stating a position, we have an even bigger problem with police attitudes than I previously thought, and I already thought it was pretty bad.

And again, hand-wringing about it from folks like Kevin is supremely unhelpful.

Ram Neta

Calling a group of people dangerous is not a great way to bring them into a productive dialogue, or getting them to listen to what else you have to say. Johnson obviously wasn't trying to get the police to listen.

Rebecca Fontaine

Narrowing of focus to the individual actions and intentions of US police & soldiers, rather than the overall consequences of systemic violence, is an intentional and artificial misunderstanding of this issue meant to silence critics of policing and militarism. If you look at actual global data, there's no argument: militaries and militarized police do in fact do far more harm than street violence or terrorism. The weapons used by militaries and police, as well as their ability to act with impunity, have a far greater capacity to do harm than street violence, making them far more dangerous. The number of civilian deaths in the Middle East and Afghanistan since the launch of the "War on Terror, (over a million) and the resulting worldwide refugee crisis speaks for itself. In recent history, we need look no further than the role of US militarism in Latin America in the 80s (and currently) and the very direct connections to the role of gang violence today in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala.

Furthermore, to overlook the role of the state in "interpersonal" violence is a falsity. Much of this "interpersonal" violence is a product of the war on drugs-- a direct product of the US domestic and foreign policy.


@Ram: Almost the entirety of white America has called black folks dangerous for many years, ever since slave revolts were the biggest threat to their prosperity. Jillian's comments about the police are not the problem here.

@Kevin: "There is at times within activist movements (and this may be definitional for such actions) an ideological cohesion and unity that assumes only one worldview is right."

There is at all times within the white establishment a unity that implies that only what they see around their neighborhoods is valid; that was is good for them is good for everyone else. That adherence to the dominant narrative of the powerful classes, and deep reluctance to engage with ideas that contradict it on a basic level, is incredibly troubling.

I actually happen to agree that abolishing the police is neither possible nor especially desirable. It seems quite likely that a vast majority of people of all walks of life agree on that. As Natalie and others point out above, police engagement with people of color communities is more complex and nuanced than 'they come, they kill'. Believe it or not, many radical activists know this full well.

And yet, there is huge disillusionment with notions of police reform, body cameras, community policing, and so on. That deep distrust does not come from nowhere. It does not come from ideology, nor from prejudice. It comes from everyday experience over generations, from deep trauma.

Police and prison abolitionists may not have the answers either, but at least they're willing to engage with something other than what there 'always was and always will be'. That is what can lead to change, not strict adherence to a framework that has hurt so many.

What you don't seem to see, Kevin, is that it is you that has a singular point of view, an unwavering uniform ideology. Furthermore, you are backed by all the power, money, and force in the world. It would do the world of good if you, and many others in the traditional corridors of power and influence, would take the time to step away from your data, and go listen.


Ben and all those who are on Ben's side of abstract math, I have four questions for one of you to answer:
1. How many black people in Durham were victims of homicide by other civilian non-police officers last year (or whenever the last round of stats were available)?
2. In those cases how many of the killers were also black?
3. How many black people in Durham were killed by the police?
4. By raw numbers alone, not statistical probability, what is more likely to kill a black person in Durham: a civilian or a cop?

I don't think percentages on chance matter to the actual dead bodies so much as who killed them. I'm not even asking for a detailed breakdown into reasons the police stated for whoever it is they killed. Nor am I asking for things like non-homicide deaths from civilians acting in self defense (to my knowledge that is not included in the murder count).

I will wait.

Michael Bacon

In a further comment to Ram, Johnson's job is not a mediator with police officers. She is one of seven supervisors of the police chief's boss.

In my work, I have never had the luxury of expecting management three levels up of including me personally in policy decisions. If I have engaged (and I have, being a natural born troublemaker), I do so understanding that I first have to gain legitimacy at the table relating to policy. And I certainly don't expect that to be presented on Facebook.

Durham police are not, in their role as police, a constituent group of the city. They are employees of the city.

As to Rick, I'm not sure why your demand to part from standard criminological practice deserves a response. Wait away...


Hey Rick,

My math is no more abstract than Kevin's original post. However, it has the advantage of being a correct description of individual likelihoods of violence. An individual police officer is 6.4x more likely to kill a black male than an individual civilian. (Again, ebola is a more dangerous disease and is more likely to kill you, even if more people total die of flu.) Since Johnson's statement was about this the dangerousness of individuals, we should regard her statement as factually true.

As far as the questions you asked - I'm not sure where to get the raw data for #1-3. Could you help me? As I've stated, #4 is a number that is irrelevant to the question of how dangerous an individual is.

Now of course, this doesn't mean that all debate should end, necessarily. Perhaps we believe that police *need* to kill people as part of their job - ok, let's talk about that. But a piece that purports to be thoughtful, that is built on a false cornerstone, is certainly problematic.

I would also think that another line of discussion could be had here that argues that civilian violence is still a bigger problem. (Or, in the analogy, that we should worry more about flu than ebola, precisely because it does kill more people.) But that is a philosophical argument (one with which I am not currently engaging).


Well Michael I guess it boils down to this: I am a person who likes raw numbers. I am not an "enlightened" criminologist or theorist. So yes, I will keep waiting.

Paolo Shirazi

The logical extension of Ms. Johnson's “analysis” is that she should immediately and with the greatest urgency bring up for a vote in the city council a proposal that all police officers be immediately pulled out of those neighborhoods where she thinks they represent the greatest single danger to public safety. After all, if she has identified the police as being a bigger danger to black people than any other group in society – including that group which has disproportionately topped violent crime statistics as long as we've kept such statistics (i.e., young black males) - the only responsible thing to be advocated under these circumstances would be the immediate removal of law enforcement from those neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American. By her logic, this would almost immediately reduce the amount of "danger" in those neighborhoods. If she truly believed her own tripe, this would be a matter of the greatest urgency.

This appears to be a political season in which politicians of all political stripes can say any illogical and unfounded thing that they want. Whether it's Bernie stating with a straight face that more than doubling the minimum wage would have no impact on small business or Trump arguing that eleven million illegal immigrants can be deported (and with no ill effects to the economy). We are getting so accustomed to politicians saying things that are ludicrous on their face that we barely blink an eye any more, let alone register the level of disappointment or outrage that's appropriate. When politicians (and their supporters) “think” only with their emotions - these days the salient emotion would of course be anger - and bypass their brains, this is what we get.

Ram Neta

@Rann and @Michael: my comment was intended as a direct response to Natalie's true and important point that the solution to the problem of overzealous policing (which is one of many real problems) is open dialogue between police and other citizens.

As I know from my experience in Israel, open dialogue is not encouraged when a politician calls one of the groups that is supposed to engage in the dialogue "the most dangerous". Whatever the factual merits of Johnson's claim (and I absolutely do not dispute those factual merits), it is not going to encourage open dialogue, any more than Netanyahu encourages open dialogue by dismissing Palestinian discontent with his state. And if you don't believe me, then go ask the chief of police whether Johnson's comment has encouraged open dialogue between police and other citizens.

Kevin Davis

I owe a number of thoughtful points here a greater response than I can do on a lunch break, so as the olds say, "longer letter later"--

1) In re the math -- I grasp the point being made with the 6x comment, but in discussing police and military, we are talking about a group of people that is indeed supposed to have a monopoly on the authorized use of deadly force. And, the number of individuals killed with legal authorization, in the CDC statistics, include those deemed "justifiable" (a very loaded, and probably overstated, category).

Incidentally, here are the data for white males 20-24 in the same year (
- Homicide, 8.0%
- Legal intervention, 0.4%

White males are 20 times more likely to be the victim of homicide than to die at the hands of police. Following the logic above, that makes police officers 16 times more likely to kill a white male than a civilian!

Carrying this to the extreme, we would conclude that white males are far more at risk of harm from policing functions than are black males. That, of course, would be "data supported" yet, I think we all agree, a conclusion not well supported by the painful weight of history.

Mind you, the entire "more dangerous/less dangerous" assertion on police vs. street violence was walked back by Johnson in her Indy comments, as noted above.

2) Michael raises a good point in the "hand-wringing" comment that is worth addressing directly.

I want to ponder a more nuanced answer to this deserving question, but in short -- I tend to hope with all elected officials that there is a pivot from membership in a community to leadership of it. Not in what one believes, but in the methods and actions needed to build consensus and agreement for one's position.

Perhaps Johnson represents a new wave of leaders of whom the citizenry expects exactly the kind of message that Johnson shared. Yet the message as it played in the broader media and in discussions was divisive.

That it was intended only for Johnson's friends and not the propagation that it's received does not negate the point that Barry Saunders made in his column on the subject.

Johnson doesn't need my approval or feedback on how to be a City Council member. I will say I think she is one of the most genuine and honest elected officials I've ever met (one of the most intelligent, as well.)

With that said, to me, leadership means finding ways to bring a community along with a position. Johnson's (IMO) accurate concern on policing spun out of a friends-only Facebook and into the broader narrative in a way that I suspect was not terribly effective with the general public, which -- let's be realistic with privilege here -- does not engage BCR and connect in comment threads.

Rather than saying activism, maybe what I'm getting at here is really the tension between the honesty and authenticity Johnson displays, and the necessary abnegation of one's honest self that is impossible to avoid in public office, simply because of the need to build consensus and a ruling center.

The natural counterargument to my point is, it may not be necessary to build a supportive center -- simply to be the voice of a different or unpopular view, to speak truth to power, to represent a moral high ground.

That's a tougher argument for me to grapple with. It is both necessary and purposeful (as anyone who's read "Profiles in Courage" or been to a Bernie rally might agree) and also not necessary enabling to an agenda's passage (as anyone who read the NYT's coverage of Bernie's legislative accomplishments might think.)

Worthy food for thought and discussion, all.


@Michael Bacon
"whom did you think you were voting for before?"

I'd wager a large number of people in Durham uncritically voted for her because the People's Alliance and Indy endorsed her. They took their trusted organizations and voted in that direction. Whether she has the same level of support in the next election remains to be seen.

I'd also wager that many in Durham, whose level of engagement stopped at the ubiquitous cute green signs and PA/Indy endorsement also voted for her because they felt good about voting for a black progressive woman for council thinking that they would get a progressive like Bell, Schwel, Moffit, Catotti, or Woodard.

If she maintains the level of support in the next election then there is evidence that it's based on her work and contribution to council as a known entity versus faith in proxy organizations.

I think she adds to council and I like her as a person but I'm ducking out to avoid tomatoes and accusation now.


Hey Paolo!

I found this in the comments above:

"Yup, there's a disconnect, alright, between a lot of the data (empirical evidence) and your experience (i.e., your anecdotal evidence). And, as a social scientist, I know what I trust more."

Just curious - what changed?

I believe your last statement - about what Ms. Johnson *should* do now - is a form of fallacy called an "appeal to consequences" ( (Interestingly, in this case, the consequence - the hypothetical call to remove police - is itself a fallacy:

Or maybe I've read your comment wrongly - maybe you're sincerely endorsing this position, and not being sarcastic?


Rick, raw numbers mean nothing without context. If you like raw numbers without analysis, stop trying to analyze them into a political position. If you wish to use numbers to support a viewpoint, then you need to listen to people that know more than you about their analysis and interpretation. Ben is correct that, on an individual level, if you were a black man and were to walk down a street and see a civilian on the right sidewalk and a police officer on the left, you would be statistically safer staying to the right. Perhaps civilian cause 50 times more death overall than police, yet there are 300 times more civilians in the country. So yes, even if we want to be myopically shortsighted and treat this one data point like some proof of rightness, we must still conclude that it reflects police as being more dangerous than civilians. Furthermore, to assume that all homicides of black males is automatically black on black crime is super racist, and is not even supported by the statistic. The stat says nothing about the perpetrator of the crime. Ever heard of lynching? Assuming that all black homicide victims must have been killed by black people ignores a massive history of lynching, hate crimes, and other violence against black people. It is another example of misusing statistics and inserting ones own political bias, and using statistics to give your bias a veneer of respectability. Instead of waiting, learn more math and history. Your time will be better spent.


@Ram: Again, the alienation of police is not the problem. It never was. That's a distraction dreamed up the police themselves and attached to by white liberals who cannot see beyond the comforts the police brings them.

Your analogy to Palestine/Israel is pretty on point though: when a government alienates a huge swathe of its population, often in very violent ways, you can expect that population to not exactly be delighted by being under that government's rule or eager to trust that government's instruments of power and use of force. It is not incumbent upon the elected representatives of the oppressed population to kowtow to the existing system of oppression in order to enter into an utterly unbalanced dialog in which they have no real leverage.

Michael Bacon

@Ram -- thanks for the context, but again, we're not talking about a marginalized group that needs to be brought to the table. If we have problematic police officers and we are willing to take direct steps to confront the problem, we have some very easy ways to address the problem -- fire them, sanction them, put them to administrative roles, put them in charge of the evidence locker, etc. I cannot repeat this enough -- they are employees, they enjoy their role as officers of the city or county at the pleasure of the city or county. And if the problem with police violence is policy (and I think, in the main, it is), we should be changing policy in order to change outcomes. In that, the police violence is unlike every other form of violence in the city, in that it should be absolutely answerable to elected officials. And that is what makes the FOP's scolding so unsettling.

@Rick -- I apologize if I sounded dismissive. It was responding to what I read as a dismissive tone in your post. To put it in very simple terms, if I tell you that dogs kill more Americans than rattlesnakes every year (they do), then tell you I'm going to lock you in a small room with either a random dog or a random rattlesnake, which one are you going to pick? That's what individual risk represents and what Johnson is addressing.

I'll respond to Kevin in a separate post.


Well, Rick, I have two points to make in response to your loaded rhetorical questions.

The first is that most of the statistics you're asking for aren't worth the paper they're printed on. That's because less than half of all crimes go reported, and less than half of all reported crimes go unsolved, and less than half of all "solved" crimes result in prosecutions, most of which are tainted by deliberating juries that, like you, do not have access to all of the evidence. So, how many black men are mugged and killed annually by other black men in Durham? Unless you're psychic and can interview the deceased (which is highly doubtful), your guess is as good as mine. Otherwise, you're relying on the same limited stats as everyone else. And as a famous person once said: "There are lies, there are d**n lies, and then there are statistics."

The second point is that, unlike crimes committed by civilians, the police have been overly meticulous in documenting pretty much every interaction they've ever had with the public, down to jaywalking citations and parking tickets, all of which are available upon Freedom of Information Act requests by reporters and statisticians (e.g. So we know with virtual certainty how many times the average police officer has killed in the line of duty. And it's a staggeringly high number compared to even the upper bound of extrapolated murders per capita attributable to virtually any other demographic. In some cities, it's even higher than the murder rate.

On a more personal note, I'm generally opposed to collectivist logic that holds an entire group responsible for the actions of a few, which would be my hesitation in siding with those denigrating the police. Most police officers never shoot another human being in their entire career. But neither do most black men kill another human being in their entire lifetime. So the reactionary attempts by the author to tarnish an entire group of people for the actions of a few strike me as being just as baseless.

In conclusion, you can go ahead and accuse your detractors of using "them fuzzy-headed mathermatistics" if you want. I don't happen to think it's the most effective way to communicate whatever points you're trying to make though. I would also encourage you to do your own research on this subject before posting, instead of demanding that others do it for you, because judging by your posts, you seem intelligent enough to figure out on your own time what we're mathematically postulating here.


Hey Kevin!

Thanks for your response in your last comment. I appreciate the forthright engagement with the commenters - not always easy, I know.

I think, though, there's still a couple points to be addressed:

In #1 of your comment, you raise the issue of violence toward white males. However, I don't believe your argument supports your conclusion. Just because a police officer is more likely to kill me (a white male) than an average person, or even if that is even more true than for a black male subject, doesn't conflict with the fact that I (a white male) am much safer in general than a black male. I believe you've attempted to downplay the relevance of this data by suggesting that this creates an absurdity - though it doesn't. So when you write that it produces "a conclusion not well supported by the painful weight of history", you're really not making a logically sound argument.

The reason that I focus on ("harp on", maybe?) these statistics, though, is because I think that your original argument is really foundationally built on them. If you were writing this blog post from scratch, and you couldn't describe Ms. Johnson's comments as "indefensible" (because they were demonstrably true), what would the article become? Clearly, there is a lot of nuanced discussion to be had around the role of public officials, the relationship of a councilperson to the police and the citizenry, etc., but I suspect that conversation necessarily plays out differently when what the "controversial statement" is actually just a statement of fact.

(Two asides: a) Mr. Reece's statement irked me, not because of its intent, but because it suggested, or allowed people to argue, that this was all about subjective experience. b) The moment in which I disagree with Ms. Johnson, from the point of view of the data, was in her follow-up comments to the Indy. She was right the first time.)

Finally, when you write "in discussing police and military, we are talking about a group of people that is indeed supposed to have a monopoly on the authorized use of deadly force", you're really changing the goalposts, aren't you? Ms. Johnson said police are dangerous - to say "they're supposed to be dangerous" isn't really saying that she's wrong at all. And I would point out that, throughout history, "legal" and "authorized" violence has so often been used in terrible ways: to support slavery, to support Jim Crow, etc. Unless you're willing to argue that police and military violence has now, finally, in 2016, reached the point that it is wholly moral and just, then I'm not sure how you can justify complaining about someone criticizing it, even if they are on city council.


Ben - I am not going to pull hairs arguing with you on what to call the type of math you are using. You are focused on hypothetical threat to individuals based on percentages. I just want to know the raw numbers. I am guessing the numbers as to who has killed who in Durham last year are buried on various city and county webpages. I was unable to find them outside of a few headlines regarding the overall number (42) of homicides last year. In my opinion we need to talk about the collective threats in Durham. In Councilwoman Jacobs opinion the police are the apex predator/the biggest threat. In my opinion whoever is responsible for the larger amount of homicides, in my opinion, is the greater risk. It's not the police. By assessing the police aren't the top threat I am not saying they aren't a threat at all. I just disagree with the heart of Jacob's comment and the math you used to quantify individual threat level. And that is not an indictment of any one race. Whether it be black on black, white on white, or any other type of homicide the victim is most likely to be killed by either someone they know or someone from their community. What needs to be reconciled in Durham is why so much violence is happening within one community. We also do need to talk about the reasons police *need* to kill people and the use/abuse of force by police in general. Maybe the new chief will start those dialogues.

Michael - no apologies necessary. I wasn't offended as our argument isn't veering into personal attacks, it's on an issue we think about two different ways. To answer your question I would not want to be locked in a room with either.

Allan - while I can respect where you are coming from in a macro sense, your argument is peppered with appeals to my emotions while you deflect answering my questions. I suspect that is because we both know based on last years news headlines what type of story the raw numbers, which you claim need more context, would show. I don't know how many, but the numbers would show more black people were killed by other black people then police last year in Durham. Furthermore, I never ASSUMED anything regarding who was killing black people in Durham. Notice my first question said nothing about race because I want to see the numbers. But I do know vaguely the numbers unfortunately support that black people killed more black people then police killed black people or white people killed black people in Durham as of last year. I am also talking about the modern day. That is not to say hate crimes do not still occur or that no racially motivated killings occur. But their were no lynchings in Durham last year and I don't need any context to say that. This conversation shouldn't even be thought of as "winning" or "losing" though. We have a lot of serious problems in Durham that are specifically hurting the black community. Besides a shared skin color, in this case black, I really do hate thinking of the issues any group of people of color face as if they were homogeneous. There is a segment within the black community that is far more active in hurting, terrorizing, and murdering blacks then the police. The police here have put up their own wall that scare off many outside of that segment (even if I disagree to the level in which Councilwoman Jacobs and those who agree with her spoke there is a certain sense of truth to it which you/Michael/Ben have further spoken to) but those within the segment I am talking about also make sure to do whatever they can to disrupt cooperation between the two. That is my point.

Michael Bacon

@Kevin -- Thanks for the reply. Johnson is one of seven city council members -- she is not the mayor, nor is she representing a single ward of the city. As such, yes, she has some responsibility to build consensus. However, in the realm of Wild-Ass Guesses, would it be fair to say that at least 1/7th of the city shares her concern for excessive police violence in the city? Is having that concern about city policy expressed by one member of council a terrible thing? Instead of seeing this as threatening to police officers, I suppose I see this as finally having a person in authority bringing a very real fear of many Durham citizens to bear on a police department that would rather ignore it, and groups like the FOP are made uncomfortable by that. I think that's a good thing.

My scholarly work has moved away from the geography of crime, where it was 10 years ago, but I dug around in that world enough to come away with some favored general theories of urban crime. Clearly, people of color are not only subject to more violence from police than white people, but are also subject to more violence by non-police. Ideally, a coherent analysis has to incorporate both the police violence and the non-police violence. The best work, to my mind, comes from the theory of legitimacy -- that maintaining an orderly community is not derived from a "tough" police state, but from the general belief that the law and its organs are on balance positive forces. If people believe the law is legitimate, they will both follow the law and cooperate with its organs. If the law is perceived as illegitimate, all kinds of things happen. Even the highly problematic Broken Windows theory starts with this. If the general sense develops that one can steal things or hurt people with impunity, law and order falls apart.

So take the very relevant cases of La'Vante Biggs or Jesus Huerta. A police force which elevates the threat to a suicidal or runaway son upon arrival, for whatever reason that may be, is a dysfunctional one. That force will not be perceived as legitimate. To put it a different way, if as a white person I discovered that my 17 year old son had stolen something minor but for which a police report had been filed, I might make him go turn himself into the police with the item in question, with the general comfort that most police officers in this country would give him a stern talking to and send him home. That episode would teach him respect for the police and for the law. Were I black, there is no way in hell I would send my son to the police the way things stand now -- the fear that he could easily end up dead or in prison for 5 years is very accurate and very real.

That is what police illegitimacy does. It destroys the critical level of trust between the community and the officers whose entire purpose is to serve and protect the community. And in so doing, it fails the community by breaking down the ability of the police to do legitimate work. In Durham, just as in cities around the country, the African-American community for very good reason has absolutely no trust that police officers, prosecutors, judges, or the penal system as a whole will be anything but a terrorizing influence on their families lives. If we want to deal with urban crime, that has to change.

Now, with that said, we now have in the body that ultimately supervises the work of the Durham police a member stating the fears of a large portion of our community, the community that is also most victimized by crime. That alone is not nearly enough to bridge the divide of mistrust, but it is a far better start than insisting on the inherent goodness of the police and shouting down anyone who disagrees, which is what has happened in this whole sorry mess.

So, yes, in general I suppose I agree with your general take that anti-governmentalism is a problem, and that we need better and more legitimate policing far more than we need an absence of policing, but I think that's putting too fine a point on what's happening here. The opinions Johnson expressed are hardly unusual among Durham citizens. Delegitimizing those opinions fundamentally worsens the problem by increasing the disconnect between the organs of state and the community.


I notice I got Jillian Jacobs, who I know from elsewhere, and Jillian Johnson confused. I blame it on low amount of sleep. But the rest of my post stands.

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