A black man in the U.S. has an estimated 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police during his lifetime, according to a paper out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 2.5 times the odds for a non-Hispanic white man, the authors find.
Black women are 1.4 times more likely than white women to be killed by police. Men overall are 20 times more likely than women to be killed by police, according to the paper.
Young adults are generally more likely than older people to be killed violently – something called the age-victimization curve – and that holds true when it comes to police use of deadly force. Across race and gender, very few people over age 60 are killed by police, the paper finds. The odds for everyone spike from age 20 to 35. For black people, the odds stay higher longer.
“40-year-old black men are at about the same risk as 25-year-old white men,” says Frank Edwards, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice and one of the paper’s authors. “So the risk for African Americans is following a really different pattern. The risk that black men and women face persist, and they’re comparable to the highest rates of risk for white people at a younger age.”
The sixth-leading cause of death for young men
American Indian men are also more likely than white, non-Hispanic men to be killed by police, at a rate 1.2 to 1.7 times greater, while the rate for Latino men is 1.3 to 1.4 times greater than the rate for white men, according to the paper. Asian and Pacific Islander men are half as likely as white men to be killed by police.
For all racial and ethnic groups, police use of force is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. for men age 25 to 29, Edwards says. Accidental fatalities, suicide, other types of homicide, heart disease and cancer rank higher.
“There’s research that estimates the years of life lost from police and it’s something like 50,000 years of life lost annually,” Edwards says.
That figure is calculated from the estimated number of years a person would have lived if he or she had not died prematurely. A 30-year-old man who had a life expectancy of 80 years before he was killed by police has 50 years of life lost. Nationwide, the total years of life lost from encounters with law enforcement was 57,375 in 2015 and 54,754 in 2016, according to a 2018 paper in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
By contrast, meningitis is associated with about 50,000 years of life lost each year, maternal deaths with about 57,000 and unintentional firearm injuries about 41,000, according to the 2018 paper.
Journalists produce good data on people killed by police – the U.S. government doesn’t (yet)
Research has thrown doubt on the reliability of federal data on deaths caused by police. The National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one large federal database that counts people killed by police. But research published in recent years found the NVSS has undercounted these numbers by more than half. The FBI keeps tabs on what it calls justifiable homicide – “the killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty” – but academic analyses also have found the FBI’s numbers to be off by about half.
Edwards, along with co-authors Hedwig Lee and Michael Esposito, used data covering 2013 to 2018 from Fatal Encounters to calculate their estimates. Fatal Encounters is a data project run by journalist D. Brian Burghart. Researchers for Fatal Encounters track incidents in which police used deadly force and verify facts through news media reports and public records requests. The Washington Post also maintains a database of people who have been shot and killed by police, and the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom has in the past tracked police use of deadly force in America. Neither were used in the paper out today.
In 2017, the FBI tallied 429 justifiable homicides nationwide. For the same year, the NVSS counted 589 deaths from “legal intervention” – its term for deaths caused by police. Fatal Encounters put the total number of people killed during interactions with law enforcement at 1,750 in 2017.
“On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we have people taking it upon themselves to do this in a way that’s been fact checked and reliable and is something we can use to produce epidemiological research,” Edwards says. “On the other hand, it’s a travesty that it’s come to that, and it’s also tragic that this is happening in an era when local news is being gutted.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics kept data on arrest-related deaths from 2003 to 2012 under its Mortality in Correctional Institutions (MCI) program. The federal agency stopped collecting data on arrest-related deaths in 2014, “due to concerns over the program’s coverage and reliability,” according to BJS criminologists.
The MCI program operates under the authority of the Death in Custody Reporting Act, last authorized in 2014, which requires that state and federal law enforcement agencies report to the U.S. Attorney General deaths that happen during interactions with or while in custody of police. But quarterly reporting won’t begin until 2020, according to a Federal Register notice from the Department of Justice.
Just last week, BJS released a technical report on a pilot study of its redesigned survey methodology for counting arrest-related deaths, which includes reviewing media reports of people killed by police.
“The hybrid approach to identifying arrest-related deaths, which combined information from media reviews and agency surveys, resulted in improvements in data completeness and quality,” the report concludes.
Spillover effects from police-related deaths
Spillover effects broadly refer to seemingly unrelated consequences that follow an action or event. There is at least one comprehensive, recent piece of academic research on the spillover effects that can happen when people are killed by police.
A 2018 study in The Lancet used more than 100,000 records from the CDC’s nationally representative Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey to explore whether incidents where people are killed by police are associated with mental stress.
The authors found that police killings of unarmed black Americans could contribute to almost two additional days of poor mental health per person among black American adults. That’s a total of 55 million extra poor mental health days each year. For comparison, the authors estimate that diabetes could be responsible for 75 million poor mental health days for black Americans. They didn’t observe mental health impacts after police killed unarmed white Americans or armed black Americans.
Even when law enforcement officers use non-deadly tactics, there can be spillover effects in the communities they serve. Research has associated stop-and-frisk policing with poor mental health and increased risk of diabetes and obesity.
“Know the magnitude of the problem”
Dozens of cases of police killing black men have received national media attention. Some cases can take years to adjudicate. Last week, a judge recommended that Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer who choked Eric Garner to death on a Staten Island sidewalk five years ago, should be fired.
The research out today provides contextual data that can gird future stories about incidents in which people are killed by police.
“You need good numbers to know the magnitude of the problem,” says Edwards. “We think we’ve illustrated it should be taken seriously as a cause of early death, particularly among young people — to the extent that federal, state and local governments are interested in reducing deaths among young people.”