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Police Killings and Race in the US

Thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement, black civilians killed by police have received much media attention in recent years, with victims such as Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner becoming household names.

In 2020, riots broke out across the world over the killing of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis when police officer Derek Chauvin performed a neck restraint on him. This incident was widely decried, and some saw it as yet another example of police brutality against black people in the United States, with the image of Floyd becoming a symbol of “the repression, control, and disregard” of black Americans and their communities. Some call this concept systemic racism.

The concept of systemic racism is real and personal to many, while others believe that systemic racism (such as redlining) existed in the past, but does not exist any longer. This article will show what the data says, what warrants further investigation, and attempt to shift the narrative by pointing out where both sides can actually agree.

For the purpose of this article, systemic racism “refers to stereotypes, emotions, and practices that are reproduced across time and place to advantage one racialized group over others” and more specifically with regards to policing it refers to “how major US institutions…have been established over time to benefit White communities at the expense of minoritized communities.”

Why Do Police Get Away with Harming Civilians?

As part of the profession, policing sometimes involves violent and tense situations. In 2019, police died on the job at a rate of 11.1 per 100,000—more than three times the average for all jobs. On average, 245 officers are shot per year, 42 of them fatally. Police officers are trained to use deadly force, and it is legally permitted in specific circumstances under the United States Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor. However, the ruling obligates them to “carefully articulate facts and events that made their use of force objectively reasonable under the circumstances.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) states that officers may use force, but “only when no reasonably effective, safe, and feasible alternative appears to exist.”

The requirement for deadly force to gain control of a situation can be difficult to ascertain. Graham v. Connor acknowledges that officers need to make split-second decisions under extremely tense and uncertain situations.

The result has been that police officers on trial for fatally shooting civilians are rarely charged with murder. In a rare exception in the case of George Floyd, Officer Chauvin received 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to “willfully depriving Mr. Floyd of his constitutional right to be free from the unreasonable use of force by a police officer.”

What the Data Say About Police Killings

According to the DOJ, the American law enforcement system comprises approximately 18,000 federal, state, county, and local agencies. 

With the lack of a central, uniform reporting system, we are dependent on the extensive efforts of independent researchers, organizations, and journalists to collect, organize, and present data in databases that the public can access. For the purpose of this article, therefore, we have used the following as our main sources of data:

  1. Mapping Police Violence (MPV)

Mapping Police Violence is a non-profit organization. It logs killings across the US by on- or off-duty police officers by any method. Since not all police killings involve shooting, MPV is a valuable source on “other” killings (which we will elaborate on below).

  1. The Washington Post

The Washington Post’s transparent, continually updated log of every person shot and killed by an on-duty officer across the US since 2015 is a very informative source that is also easy to navigate. It serves as this article’s primary source for statistics on fatal police shootings, including a breakdown by race.

How Many Fatal Police Shootings Occur Yearly?

When we look at the raw numbers of police killings, we should remember that there is no way of telling which were justified or not, as this is determined later in a court of law.

According to The Washington Post’s analysis, over 1,000 fatal shootings occur every year, with 8,124 deaths logged since 2015. This means that in 2021, for example, out of 332 million Americans, fatal police shootings involved 0.00000316% of the American population, making them a relatively rare occurrence. 

According to the World Population Review, the US had 28.54 deaths by police per 10 million people in 2020, while in 2017 Canada had 9.7 deaths by police per 10 million, and in 2019 the UK had .5 deaths per 10 million. (Unfortunately, the reference years were different for each country.)

What Do the Data Say About Fatal Police Shootings by Race?

According to The Washington Post’s compiled data (seen in the chart below), over half of all individuals who died in a police shooting were white. But to say that white Americans are fatally shot more often than black Americans tells only half the story. Once we adjust for population size—taking population ratios into account—we get a more nuanced picture.

According to the United States Census Bureau, whites make up 61.2% of the US population as of 2021. Comparatively, blacks or African Americans comprise 12.1% of the population. In The Post’s continually updated database as of January 25, 2023, of the total 8,166 victims of police shootings since 2015, 1,906 (or 27%) of those for which there is race data were black versus 3,622 (51%) white. This means that police kill black Americans at roughly twice the rate of white individuals.

Regardless of race, 95% of those killed by police are male, and over half are between the ages of 20 and 40.

How Common Is Deadly Force Without a Gun?

As in the case of George Floyd, not all civilians who die at the hands of police are killed by guns. MPV has examined “other” lethal methods that police employ including tasers, vehicles, or other physical force such as baton or chokehold. But how common is deadly force by these methods? While each number represents a life lost and is therefore noteworthy in itself, MPV’s database indicates that they represent a fraction of the total number of police killings. From 2013 to 2022, all methods of lethal force (excluding shooting) employed by off-duty and on-duty police officers accounted for fewer than 60 annual deaths in the entire United States with the exception of 2015, when the number climbed to just over 70 (see chart below).

Some Commonly Cited Factors That May Influence Police Killings

Implicit Bias

In 2011, three scientists launched Project Implicit and the Implicit Association Test to measure “attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.” The test “may be especially interesting,” Project Implicit claims, “if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about.” Some cite implicit bias of police officers toward black people as the reason for black Americans’ overrepresentation in police shootings, with others claiming that though police officers can become aware of their implicit biases and how they affect their policing, they cannot unlearn them.

Another question to consider is how working in high-crime areas and dangerous situations may affect implicit bias in police officers. A 2011 study by Joshua Correll et al. at the University of Chicago suggests that “racial bias in decisions to shoot reflects the fact that most Americans associate Blacks (or, at least, young Black men) with danger.” The study tested the hypothesis that “perception of threat fosters a predisposition to shoot.” Citing a 2003 study by Terrill and Reisig which explores the relationship between police shootings and the neighborhood where the encounter took place, Correll et al. found that “their initial results perfectly match the data reported here: a potentially dangerous and disadvantaged neighborhood may prompt more extreme use of force regardless of the suspect’s race.”

From their research, Correll et al. acknowledge that “racial cues can and do signal threat,” but they also emphasize the dynamic role of threat perception and context.

And it is not necessarily an unwarranted bias. According to the FBI LEOKA report, in 2019, 48 police officers were killed, and of the 49 assailants involved, 15 were black/African American. This means over 30% of the people who killed police in 2019 were black/African American, making black Americans even more over-represented in killing police than in being killed by them.

This ties in with the “minority threat hypothesis” which posits that “law enforcement’s level of coercive authority, and the frequency of its use, corresponds to the size of the minority population in order to contain or neutralize the perceived threat.”

In another study on implicit racial bias among police officers from 2017, Lois James of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University found that “Although officers did tend to either moderately or strongly associate Black Americans with weapons, implicit racial bias varied significantly within the same officers over time.” What this means, according to James, is “that implicit racial bias is not a stable trait.”

But James’s study proposes that recognizing one of the major factors affecting levels of officers’ implicit bias—sleep—offers some hope in ameliorating relations between civilians and police: “if tired officers are more biased, then programs designed to improve officer sleep may have consequences beyond improving officer health.”

Discrimination in the Law Enforcement and Justice System

Another hypothesis for the overrepresentation of blacks in shooting and crime statistics, as put forth by the Vera Institute—a non-profit that performs national research on the US justice system—is that black Americans are unfairly targeted by the law enforcement and justice system. It argues that even though laws are supposed to be neutral when it comes to race, they often are enforced in a discriminatory way. According to Vera in a 2018 report on the disparate treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system:

Bias by decision makers at all stages of the justice process disadvantages black people. Studies have found that they are more likely to be stopped by the police, detained pretrial, charged with more serious crimes, and sentenced more harshly than white people.

In 2017, The Washington Post covered a report by the United States Sentencing Commission on demographic differences in sentencing which found that black men receive federal prison sentences that are, on average, 20% longer than those of white men for the same crime, indicating that prejudice against black Americans may play a role in sentencing. This could contribute towards the higher rates of non-fatal violent crimes recorded among the black population.

Violent Crime Rates

In addition to being disproportionately represented among police killings (27%), black Americans are also disproportionately represented in arrests for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter (51.2%) and non-fatal violent crime (33%).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (part of the DOJ) defines violent crime as “serious nonfatal violent crimes” including “rape, robbery, and aggravated assault” but excluding “other assault.” According to the Bureau, citing 2018 data from the FBI (see table below), blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians were overrepresented in arrests for both non-fatal violent crimes and serious non-fatal violent crimes relative to their representation in the US population. Whites—making up the majority of the US population—were somewhat underrepresented in the same statistics, and Asians were significantly underrepresented. 

The findings of Michigan State University researcher Joseph Cesario suggest that rates of violent crime could, in fact, play a role in police shootings. For Cesario, the narrative that white cops oppress black Americans does not align with the data. Cesario and his team created a comprehensive database of police officers involved in fatal shootings—something he says was previously missing—and published their findings in 2019, where they stated the following:

We find no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers. Instead, race-specific crime strongly predicts civilian race. This suggests that increasing diversity among officers by itself is unlikely to reduce racial disparity in police shootings.

Cesario went on to tell the Michigan State University College of Social Science that race does not matter in predicting shootings of black or white citizens. “If anything, black citizens are more likely to have been shot by black officers,” he says, “but this is because black officers are drawn from the same population that they police.” According to their findings, violent crime rates are the driving force behind police shootings—not race:

Our data show that the rate of crime by each racial group correlates with the likelihood of citizens from that racial group being shot. If you live in a county that has a lot of white people committing crimes, white people are more likely to be shot. If you live in a county that has a lot of black people committing crimes, black people are more likely to be shot. It is the best predictor we have of fatal police shootings.

The data would suggest, then—at least according to Cesario—that the driving force behind fatal police shootings of blacks is not direct prejudice of police officers today, but rather crime rates. But to gain a deeper understanding of the reasons for these higher crime rates, an honest exploration of the issue must also consider the legacy of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, redlining, and how this legacy has translated into socioeconomic factors that may play a role in crime among African Americans today.

It’s interesting to note that childhood lead exposure has been associated with antisocial and criminal behavior later in life. One population-based study from 2022 observed that black children are “more likely to experience economic disadvantage, have higher BLLs [blood lead levels], reside in racially isolated neighborhoods, and have mothers who did not graduate from high school and are unmarried at time of birth.”

Socioeconomic Status

A lack of highly specific data makes it difficult to get a very nuanced perspective on the socioeconomic status of people killed at the hands of police, but a study by Justin Feldman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Population Health at the NYU School of Medicine, offers some valuable insight into the topic.

In his study, Feldman matches the locations of killings by police to the census tract, which records the socioeconomic information on different neighborhoods.

He found that the highest poverty areas have a 3.5 times higher rate of police killings than the lowest poverty areas at 6.4 per million versus 1.8 per million (see table below). “For the overall population, the rate of police killings increased as census tract poverty increased,” he reports.

When analyzing rates of killings by police among different social classes of racial groups, Feldman found that among white individuals, the poorest areas have a rate of 7.9 per million, versus 2.0 per million among the least poor areas. Similarly, black individuals in the poorest areas have a rate of 12.3 per million, compared to 6.7 per million in the least-poor areas (see graph below).

Feldman concludes that while “higher census tract poverty fully explained the Latino–white gap” in police killing rates (Feldman, p. 10), in a hypothetical scenario where the distribution of poverty quintiles among black people was equal to that of whites, a black–white gap of more than 28% could not be fully accounted for by socioeconomic status alone (Feldman, p. 9). According to Feldman, “Higher poverty among the black population accounts for a meaningful, but relatively modest, portion of the black-white gap in police killing rates” (Feldman, p. 10).

According to a 2019 study by Michael Siegel and his team, blacks were “no more likely” than whites to be shot in Mesa, Arizona; Honolulu, Hawaii; Lexington, Kentucky; and Henderson, Nevada. However, a black person was 46.7 times more likely than a white person to be shot in Santa Ana, California. They found a high correlation between racial segregation—or neighborhoods that were predominantly occupied by black residents—and an increased disparity between black-white fatal police shootings.

A multi-level bayesian analysis published in 2015 also found that “racial bias in police shootings is most likely to emerge in police departments in larger metropolitan counties with low median incomes and a sizable portion of black residents, especially when there is high financial inequality in that county.”

Interestingly enough, that study also found “no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” They suggest that “heterogeneity in encounter rates between suspects and police as a function of race could play a strong role in the racial biases in shooting rates presented here.”

Media Bias in Reporting on Police Killings

Although race may play a role in police killings, because of media bias in reporting on fatal police encounters, it may be a smaller role than is often perceived. A white officer killing a white civilian may not generate as much outrage as a white officer killing a black civilian. Even though the majority of those being fatally shot are white, their stories often aren’t covered as much by news outlets.

Such was the case of Tony Timpa, a 32-year-old man who called the Dallas police, informing them that he had schizophrenia and depression but had not taken his prescription medication. The police officers who responded to the call say that Timpa was aggressive, but the bodycam footage (viewer discretion advised) of the incident seems to contradict their claim. Timpa was handcuffed and restrained as a police officer pushed his knee into his back. When he fell unconscious, the police officers joked about waking him up for school. They didn’t check for a pulse; it was only after the paramedics arrived on the scene and they were lifting him onto a gurney that the officers started to panic.

Tony Timpa’s death went largely unnoticed when it happened in 2016, and his family was initially denied the right to sue after a Texas judge granted the officers qualified immunity. Parallels were later drawn between his death and George Floyd’s, and only then did Timpa’s death receive more attention. Ryan Mills, writing for The National Review, pointed out that “there was no national uproar after Timpa’s death, and no national cries for justice and reform. Many argued that was largely because of race—Timpa was white, Floyd was black.” Mills added, “The city of Dallas has not paid a settlement to Timpa’s family.”

Complicating the question of media bias is the issue of missing data bias, which refers to the problem of how police killings that occur in rural America often get overlooked by news outlets because there is no video.

Why An Accurate Assessment Is Important

There are a couple reasons why gauging the level of risk and the root causes of police violence towards everyone—and especially black Americans—is so important.

First, a study from 2018 published in The Lancet found that each additional police killing of unarmed black Americans was associated with an increase of 0.14 poor mental health days among black American respondents. The study authors state that:

Police killings of unarmed black Americans might compromise mental health among other black Americans through various mechanisms, including heightened perceptions of systemic racism and lack of fairness, loss of social status and self-regard, increased fear of victimisation and greater mortality expectations, increased vigilance, diminished trust in social institutions, reactions of anger, activation of prior traumas, and communal bereavement.

As we’ve shown in this article, killings in police encounters are statistically rare for all races, and the causes of police killings are complex and varied. One could question how the narrative that black Americans are racially targeted by police and the media’s eagerness to focus on stories of black Americans killed by white cops may exacerbate many of these negative mental health effects.

Believing that they are likely to be targets of systemic racism may have effects on how black Americans act during encounters with the police. Data from Mapping Police Violence suggests that black Americans are more likely to be killed while fleeing from police.

In fact, one study using MPV data found that the odds that victims of police killings were fleeing the scene when killed was increasing each year, and that the odds that black Americans were killed while fleeing was 28% higher than for other races. From this data, we do not know if fleeing increased the chances of black Americans getting killed by police or if police were more likely to shoot a black person while they were fleeing than someone of another race. Thus, we can’t draw meaningful conclusions from this data point alone, but it’s worth considering both potential interpretations and investigating further.

Between the years of 2000 and 2017 in Canada—a developed nation comparable to the US with roughly 10% of its population—police killed 21 unarmed people. According to Mapping Police Violence, the number of unarmed people killed by police between 2013 and 2023 in the US ranges from 130 to 226 within a single year, with black Americans being 1.3 times as likely as white Americans to be unarmed when killed by police.

In raw numbers, however, more unarmed white Americans are killed each year, such as in the example of Richard Ward (viewer discretion advised), an unarmed white man confronted by police in 2022 for accidentally trying to get in the wrong vehicle and was shot three times when he tried to take a pill for anxiety.

There is also the recent example of Tyre Nichols, a black man who was brutally beaten to death for a non-violent offense in a relatively safe neighborhood in Memphis by five police officers.

In both of these examples we can agree that there should be an investigation, potential accountability for the cops involved, and an examination of how to prevent incidents like this from occurring again in the future.

Conclusion

The majority of Americans would likely agree that we don’t want a society that systemically disadvantages certain races. As we showed in this article, there is some evidence that black Americans are more likely to be sentenced and get longer sentences for the same crimes as white Americans, and the disparity between the rates of killings by police has not been conclusively explained by systemic racism or by other factors such as socioeconomic disparities, crime rate disparities, etc. Thus, it is worth investigating further and addressing any specific mechanisms which may be disadvantaging black Americans because of their race. This seems like something most Americans can agree on.

Perhaps the narrow focus on race in police killings detracts from a unified push for meaningful police accountability and discussion of what changes might help make the practice of enforcing the law safer for all Americans.

Editors: Claudia Fox Reppen, Craig Carroll
Peer Review Completed By 3 Individuals

Think we missed something? Share your best data with us in the comments and we’ll consider adding it into the article.

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By Laura London and Stacia Wilson
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