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Criminal Justice

Do Police Really Treat White Mass Shooters With Kid Gloves?

Government data on race and police violence is hard to come by.

Demonstrators gather outside Akron City Hall to protest the killing of Jayland Walker by police in Akron, Ohio. People are comparing Walker's death to how police treated the white suspect in the recent mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. (Matthew Hatcher/AFP via Getty Images)

The memes show up on social media whenever a white mass shooter is taken into custody.

On one side of the image is the face of a Black person who was gunned down by police after being stopped on suspicion of a minor crime. On the other side is the face of a young white man who will get his day in court as the suspect in a massacre executed with a high-powered semiautomatic rifle.

The comparison prompts public outcries about a double standard and demands for justice. This week, it happened again.

A 21-year-old white man is accused of using a Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle to kill seven people and injure more than 30 during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. Cellphone video of his arrest shows the controlled actions of police following the carnage to safely take him into custody.

Jayland Walker, 25, fled police in Akron, Ohio, following an attempted traffic stop on June 27. A handgun was found in Walker’s vehicle, police say, but he was unarmed when they fired approximately 90 bullets during a foot pursuit, killing him. 

In their stories, many see the continuation of a long-running double standard that leaves innocent Black people dead and silenced while violent white men live to defend themselves. People point to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown — Black people who were innocent, unarmed, or stopped for minor offenses before they were killed. Meanwhile, the families of white men suspected of methodically planning mass murder — in El Paso, Texas, in Buffalo, New York, in Atlanta, and in Charleston, South Carolina — aren’t forced to plan their unexpected funerals.

But proving that white active shooters are handled with kid gloves compared to Black people suspected of lesser crimes isn’t easy.

Capital B contacted federal agencies tasked with tracking shootings by police, but none identified the race of suspects. It’s not just their active shooter data — federal agencies don’t break down any police shootings down by race.

The FBI recently released a report on active shooter incidents that occurred in 2021, noting that the gunmen were killed by police in 14 of the 61 incidents. In 30 cases, the gunmen were apprehended — most at another location after the shooting — and four of those incidents ended when armed and unarmed civilians engaged with the shooter to stop the threat. 

But when Capital B asked the FBI for the race and ethnicity of the active shooters, a press officer said via email, “We have no additional information to provide other than what was provided within the 2021 Active Shooter Report.” 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which only started receiving funding to examine gun-violence as a public health crisis in 2018, also does not track the race or ethnicity of active shooters. However, the national agency pointed Capital B to the summary of a federally funded project that analyzed the psychosocial history of public mass shooters from 1966 to 2019. 

Investigators found that there have been 172 mass shooters — based on the FBI’s mass shooting definition of four or more deaths — during that period and identified them as: 52.3% white, 20.9% Black, 8.1% Latino, 6.4% Asian, 4.2% Middle Eastern, and 1.8% Native American.

While the project revealed that 58.7% of the shooters died on the scene — 38.4% dying by suicide and 20.3% killed by law enforcement officers — it did not break down those categories by their race. 

“We should research it because we need to know the problem exists so we can address it,” said Keith Taylor, a retired assistant commissioner with the New York City Police Department. “We can address it with policy, training, and education.”

While federal agencies have failed to track how police handle suspects by race, some independent organizations have maintained databases of all police-involved shootings based on news articles, social media posts, university studies, and police reports. Those organizations, including The Washington Post and Mapping Police Violence, have concluded that Black people are killed by the police at a higher rate and whites. 

So far this year, 286 people have been killed by police, according to Mapping Police Violence, which included the breakdown of some races and ethnicities. The victims include 67 whites, 49 Blacks, 32 Hispanics, 3 Asians, and 2 Native Americans. While those figures show that more whites were killed, when you factor in that Blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, these numbers show the disparity. 

Improving police tactics and providing implicit bias training could make a difference when officers do encounter a person of color, Taylor said.

“There are lots of things that police can encounter that may make them mistakenly believe that the situation is more of a threat than it actually is,” he said, noting the history of Black people being treated with harsher consequences than white suspects is in part because of implicit biases of police. “We’re in 2022 and our training has to encompass this history and aspects of policing that no one is proud of. But everyone who’s wearing that badge has to be aware of that so that they can make better decisions.”

More than a week after Walker’s death, officials released police body camera footage from his last moments alive. Delayed release of such footage could cause more damage, Taylor said, allowing the public to circulate false information.

But without an official account of police shootings and suspects’ race, the public will be left to make assumptions.

“If we don’t know what’s happening, we can’t measure it, we have no idea what the problem is,” Taylor said. “So getting compliance at the city and state level for what the federal government needs in order to actually determine what the trends are, what the discriminatory practices and patterns are, that’s the real challenge,” Taylor said.