Public Safety Crime Control, Policing
August 10th, 2023 2 Minute Read Press Release

New Report: What Americans Get Wrong About Police Violence

Media consumers are prone to overestimate police use of force, yet their misperceptions can be corrected when met with facts

NEW YORK, NY — The past ten years have seen dramatic growth in media and public attention to police brutality and racial bias, even though, in this same period, rates of fatal officer-involved shootings in major U.S. cities are generally lower than in decades past. But this fact has not stopped people from overestimating police violence. In 2021, one in three people reported that 1,000 or more unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019 when the actual total number of unarmed men killed was 73, with 29 being black and 44 white. The public’s inability to ascertain the pervasiveness (or lack thereof) of police use of force suggests trends in media coverage and public perception are divorced from empirical reality.

For a new Manhattan Institute report, Paulson Policy Analyst Zach Goldberg surveyed 1,508 Americans to determine the accuracy of public perception with respect to the prevalence and racial distribution of police use of force. Goldberg first proposes that public perception of police use of force may be susceptible to media distortion given that few Americans have personal experience with it and thus rely on media coverage to estimate how serious it is. Indeed, his survey findings reveal significant overestimates of the prevalence of nonlethal use-of-force incidents, and of the black and unarmed shares of fatal police-shooting victims. His study also indicates that receiving correct information significantly reduced inaccurate perceptions of police brutality and increased support for policing-centered crime control policies.

Goldberg’s findings have important implications for media coverage of police use of force. News is a primary channel through which the public learns about conditions and phenomena outside of their direct experience. In recent years, there has been an obvious racial skew in media reporting. The median unarmed black victim of a fatal police shootings receives nearly 21 times more news articles than the median white victim, an imbalance that likely distorts public perceptions of police violence. Goldberg concludes with recommendations for fostering more informative and responsible media coverage of police use of force.

Click here to view the full report.


Are you interested in supporting the Manhattan Institute’s public-interest research and journalism? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and its scholars’ work are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).