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“Ride into the Danger Zone”

December 11, 2014

It’s been awhile since I have posted and even longer since I posted about public policy. I blame this on the basic horrible state of news in the US and around the world as causing me to deviate from the central purpose of this blog. (though I do enjoy blogging about humor and music). The news of the fall and summer have been dominated by death in Ferguson (and now New York City), Ebola and ISIS. But as I have thought about these events and the coverage of them as well as the public policy responses, there is a central commonality. Our perception of health and safety risk as a society is BACKWARDS! We, as a society, and the press (and internet) and politicians that feed our perceptions, generally focus on relatively small risks while paying far less attention to more significant risks to our health and well-being. In my mind, this is a public policy tragedy that has been going on for many years.

The Ferguson shooting was unquestionably a tragedy (any time anyone dies, particularly someone who is young, it is particularly tragic), though most of  the evidence and the grand jury decision, pointed to a situation which was a “justified homicide”. (despite the press coverage that for months largely painted it as an example of police brutality and racism). The accidental choking death in New York city appears to be an example of just the opposite (despite the grand jury’s failure to indict) a case of second degree manslaughter if there ever was one given the video evidence! I certainly understand and agree with the concern over these deaths, as well as problems between the police and inner-city communities in general. I also realize that I can never fully understand the natural resentment that many African-Americans have with the police given the historical (and in some cases, current) record of specifically hassling, targeting and arresting young black youths. Thus, it is more than understandable that there is enormous anger and frustration over both of these deaths and the failure to indict in both cases.

However, we need to put this all in the appropriate context. For one, the statistical evidence is that the number of such instances are relatively rare. Consider that last year according to FBI statistics, there were about 14,000 homicides with more than 2/3 of the victims being black or hispanic living in inner city neighborhoods. (with 90% of blacks being murdered by other blacks). However, in contrast, there were only 410 “justifiable homicides” by police with only a very small number of police being convicted for murder or manslaughter or other more questionable Ferguson or NYC incidents. In other words, even counting ALL justified and unjustified homicides by the police, these homicides were only 3% as frequent as murders in general. Again, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about police homicides or the police relationship with the community in general, as evidence has shown that in those areas and communities that have improved the police-community relationship, overall safety and crime rates have also improved. However, it does say that perhaps we should also focus on the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, 14,000 murders (though an enormous improvement from 20-25 years ago) are still too many!. The causes of murder and violent crime in our inner city neighborhoods are complex, but family breakdown, inadequate schools and educational opportunity, high unemployment, among other negative economic statistics are certainly major contributors. Perhaps the protests and concerns should also be directed at these core problems and how to fix them rather than solely at the statistically smaller risk of unjustified police homicides.

The Ebola hysteria of this past summer is another good example of the US society’s misplaced emphasis on in this case a very low risk to Americans. To be sure, we should be concerned about the spread of the Ebola as it is a very lethal disease. But the hysteria over the possible infection of significant numbers of Americans was completely unfounded and in fact, only one person ended up dying from Ebola in the US. In contrast, tens of thousands have already died from the 2014 outbreak in Africa and even this number pales in comparison to the literally millions who die from less “sensational” diseases and illness (such as diarrhea, typhoid, malaria, AIDS to name just a few each and every year in Africa). But much like the Ferguson case, the press and the internet and our politicians put a name and a face on the threat in the US and it becomes the focus of concern.

The threat of ISIS could be viewed similarly. To be sure, the rise of ISIS is worrisome and likely increases the risk of terrorist attacks here in the US and around the world. Further, if ISIS is able to gain a true caliphate (by taking over much of Iraq), it can become another state sponsor of terrorism (similar to Iran) and will make the US and the World a less safe place. However, US deaths by terrorism here and abroad will still be a VERY low risk for most Americans. It is notable that our concern (and apparently our government’s concern) over ISIS was minimal until the internet decapitations in August. Again, the images put a real face on ISIS style terrorism and made it more newsworthy and thus became a focus of our concern.

Air pollution in the US is another example of the public’s complete misunderstanding of risk, aided and abetted this time by the federal government itself. The EPA has in particular been trotting out studies for the past 10 years which make the case that there are literally tens of thousands of deaths from air pollution in the U.S. CURRENTLY. Of course, common sense tells us this is nonsense. In fact, US air pollution levels are much lower than they were even 10 years ago and far lower than 30 years ago.  There are numerous problems with the studies not the least of which they are cross-sectional, population studies largely use old data during the 1980s and 1990s when air pollution levels were much higher than today. (e.g. Sulfur dioxide, the largest precursor of fine particulates, which are allegedly responsible for the EPA body count has been cut by almost 90% from 35 years ago.) Further, the multi-linear regression studies show relatively low correlations, and do not include many important variables. Frankly, I would have flunked my Stanford business school Statistics class had I submitted this as my regression project. Lastly, the EPA and its multitude of scientists have NEVER found any direct health effect in animal studies associated with the levels of pollutants even in U.S. air sheds some 30 years ago, let alone at today’s much lower levels. Consider also that common sense (and our own noses) tells us to periodically “air out” our houses when we smell gas, cook something smoky or use our fireplaces or wood burning stoves. In fact, the health risks of indoor pollution are clearly greater than outdoor pollution. And, of course, by far the largest risk to mortality and health (related to our breathing) is smoking which is still a habit for a significant number of Americans. Yet, there is far less attention on these risks by EPA or the public as a whole.

The recent malfunctioning airbags in Honda and other vehicles during this year have led to several major injuries and even one death and a recall program at Honda. And of course, it received significant publicity on the news and on the web. However, despite significant publicity, the risk is tiny, in comparison with the risk of deaths from vehicle accidents in general (about 40,000 deaths per year), which is the most common form of accidental death in the US. 

In fact, the top ten causes of death in 2011 were hardly “sexy” or as interesting as malfunctioning air bags, cop killings, air pollution, Ebola or terrorism:

  1. Heart Disease– 597,000 
  2. Cancer– 577,000
  3. Chronic lower respiratory disease–142,000
  4. Stroke–128,000
  5. Accidents– 126,000 (about 1/3 vehicle accidents, about 1/3 unintentional poisoning)
  6. Alzheimer’s disease–85,000
  7. Diabetes–74,000
  8. Flu and Pneumonia–54,000
  9. Nephritis/Nephrosis–46,000
  10. Suicide–39,518

Why is there such an emphasis and focus placed on risks that are really very low, while the much more prevalent forms of mortality risks in the US get relatively little focus? In my view, there are two key reasons. First, deaths from police homicides, Ebola, terrorism, plane crashes etc. are interesting and newsworthy, precisely because they are “rare”. Second, these relatively uncommon deaths are caused by “someone else”. One can blame “evil” corporations, government bureaucracy, bad government policies or an overly aggressive police officer and this in itself also makes the story more interesting and newsworthy. In contrast, the common mortality risks are mostly in our own control thru better diet, not smoking, drinking only in moderation, exercise, weight control, mental health, immunizations, driving practices to name just a few factors.

The fact that our risk of death is actually largely within our own control should be very good news or even “cheery” news (appropriate for the upcoming Holidays). However, sadly, few of us focus on it all that much. Perhaps the best Christmas present we can offer our friends and family is to remind them to be safe and be healthy. Or as the Sarge used to say on Hill Street Blues “Let’s be careful out there.” Let’s not have any more rides into the “danger zone” than are necessary.  

 Merry Christmas to all. 


From → Public Policy

  1. permalink

    That’s a funny way of evoking the Christmas spirit!!!
    Statistically you are more likely to set yourself on a path to death by enjoying Christmas than you are of catching Ebola from Santa!!!

    David Hone
    Chief Climate Change Adviser
    Group CO2
    Shell Research Ltd
    Shell Centre, York Road
    SE1 7NA
    United Kingdom

    Tel: +44-20-7934-6012
    Mobile: +44-7889114563

  2. Yep! Ho, Ho, Ho!

  3. Robert Carey permalink

    “Perhaps the protests and concerns should also be directed at these core problems and how to fix them rather than solely at the statistically smaller risk of unjustified police homicides.”

    This misses the point. Yeah, we need focus on those core problems. But it is not a question of statistics. There is no analogy to be made between general murder statistics and police actions. The police are our employees. They are supposed to be protecting us. If instead they are killing us, something is really wrong. And in the case of Ferguson, where I think a corrupt prosecutor skewed the process to help a clearly guilty racist cop get off without even being charged, something is wrong with the entire system and structure.

  4. Geoff permalink


    Interesting blog piece … I agree with much of what you say, but I had a similar reaction as Robbie concerning your comparison of the risk level re: “even counting ALL justified and unjustified homicides by the police, these homicides were only 3% as frequent as murders in general”. I think that the frequency of unjustified homicides by police should be as near 0% as possible.

    But in another way I think you may be missing the point … the protest and concerns are not just directed at unjustified police homicides. Those are the proverbial tip of the iceburg … police harassment, brutality, profiling, etc., etc., are fueling the protests as well.

    To be sure, the African-American citizens (the vast majority of which are law abiding) in the inner city fear both murder by African-American males AND police harassment/brutality at the hands of a rogue cop (more often white than not).

    I do agree with your relative assessment of the two cases (I was just telling Sandy pretty much the same thing a few nights ago): I can understand the grand jury’s “no bill” in the Ferguson shooting, and in no way can I understand the lack of indictment in the NYC choking death. Of course, we’ll never know the exact evidence presented to the Grand Juries in both cases, but the evidence that we all see (the video of the choking) is pretty damning.

    I am very much in agreement about the real risk level in the US pertaining to Ebola. I sort of see what you are saying about ISIS too. But Islamist terrorists were never seen as much of a real threat to the health and well-being of Americans for years, and then whamo … 911. Maybe “only” 3000+ people died, but millions were terrorized and otherwise impacted.


  5. I dont disagree with either you or Robbie. The police need to do better and they should do better. And efforts that some forces are making to develop a better and more trusting relationship with their communities (great piece on RealSports on this) are critical in that regard. However, there has also been a great deal of hyperbole in this discussion. I have heard commentators talk about the countless number of blacks “murdered” by police every year. Really? If you look the data, they are probably only 5-10 questionable shootings each year. And the overwhelming majority of shootings occur during or after the commission of a crime and usually in a shoot out.
    And again it all pales in comparison to 10,000 -15,000 African- Americans who die about 90 percent
    of the Time at the hands of another African-American EVERY YEAR. I think that is the real tragedy here. Why we couldn’t ALSO have that discussion is a shame, because the two are related. “Better” policing means less profiling AND better arrest records which should help deter at least some of the murders. (Though as I note the root causes of crime are more complicated, and we need to do much more).

    BTW the NYC choking death is particularly tragic because the police should NEVER have been there in the first place. It was all about collecting NY cigarette taxes, for that the city is as culpable as the cop in my view.

    Of course, the real point of this post is that we and the media generally worry about all the wrong things. We are much much much more likely to die of a heart attack or get cancer than to be murdered. And though accidental death is much less common than deaths from heart disease or cancer , it is still the fifth highest cause of death. In other words, be healthy and be safe and take care of yourself and your family.!

  6. Rob Carey permalink

    How many white people die at the hands of white people? Black on black crime is a dog whistle.

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