Black people three times more likely to be killed than white people during contact with US police, finds study

Rates of police-related fatalities vary in the US and some metros have death rates 9 times than those of other cities


                            Black people three times more likely to be killed than white people during contact with US police, finds study
(Getty Images)

In the wake of George Floyd's death, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn renewed attention to fatal police violence as an urgent public health and racial justice problem. Experts now report that across every metropolitan statistical area in the US, black people are, on average, 3.23 times more likely to be killed than white people in police-related encounters. 

"Nationally, Black people are at much higher risk of being killed by the police, but in some places, the difference is truly enormous: Black Chicagoans are over 650% more likely to be killed than white Chicagoans," say researchers from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, in an analysis published in PLOS ONE.

According to the research team, since Floyd's death at the hands of the police and the following surge of protests against police violence, uncovering specific data on police-related fatalities in the US has never been more critical. Accordingly, the authors analyzed US police-involved fatalities across racial/ethnic groups at the level of individual metropolitan statistical areas. 

To estimate rates of fatalities involving police for every metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the US — a level of geographical precision that surpasses previous work in this area — researchers investigated 5,494 police-related fatalities from 2013-2017, using a comprehensive and independently-validated database, Fatal Encounters. The database is endorsed by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, says the team.

"Our analysis of national data in this paper shows that 90% of fatalities involving police in this country occurred in metropolitan statistical areas, which suggests that MSAs are a key geographic unit of analysis to identify areas where policy changes should be made to address fatal police violence," the authors write. According to the US Census Bureau, the general concept of a metropolitan statistical area is that of a core area containing a substantial population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core.

The analysis excluded 1,670 cases reported as suicides, accidents or vehicle collisions. A total of 547 deaths also lacked race/ethnicity data and so were excluded from the portion of the analysis related to racial/ethnic inequities. "While Fatal Encounters offers the most comprehensive data on police use of deadly force in the US at this time, it likely misses a number of similar cases because not all of these incidents are reported. Other limitations with the dataset include a possibility of racial/ethnic misclassification since the race was not self-reported and the risk of misclassification of cause of death (such as accidental versus non-accidental death). The database also does not include the circumstances around each police-related fatality, and it's unclear if every fatality in the database would have been prevented had the police not become involved," say researchers. 

The authors analyzed US police-involved fatalities across racial/ethnic groups at the level of individual metropolitan statistical areas (Getty Images)

The research team found that people's risk of fatal police violence varies hugely from one metro area to another. Some metros have death rates 9 times those of other cities, which points to how preventable these deaths are and why so many people are protesting police violence across the country, they explain. 

"Of the included 5,494 fatalities involving police from 2013-2017, 2,353 (42.83%) of the decedents were white, 1,487 (27.07%) were black, 939 were Latinx (17.09%), and 168 (3.06%) were other race/ethnicities, while 547 lacked data on race/ethnicity. Nationally, from our first set of models, the annual rate of fatal police violence was 0.39 per 100,000. Yet overall and race-specific rates varied from MSA to MSA: overall rates ranged from 0.13 fatalities per 100,000 in Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, New York, to 1.17/100,000 in Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville, Alabama, meaning the most lethal MSA exhibited rates nine times those of the least lethal," write authors.

Estimated annual rates of fatal police violence per 100,000 residents, by metropolitan statistical area (Schwartz and Jahn, 2020 / PLOS ONE, CC BY)

The data also shows large inequities in the rates at which white and black Americans were killed during police contact. The specific death rates varied greatly across MSAs: black fatalities ranged from 1.81 times greater than white fatalities in the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell MSA to 6.51 times greater than white fatalities in the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin MSA. In general, MSAs with low rates of police-related fatalities against white people tended to exhibit more extreme black-white inequities.

The authors did not calculate MSA-specific rates for people of other races/ethnicities, including Native American, Middle Eastern, and Asian/Pacific Islander, due in part to the low total number of deaths for these groups in the Fatal Encounters database. "On average, there were large racial/ethnic inequities in the rates at which white and black people were killed during police contact. Across all MSAs, black people were 3.23 times more likely to be killed compared to White people," the findings state. 

Estimated black-white incidence rate ratios (annual) for fatal police violence, by metropolitan statistical area. (Schwartz and Jahn, 2020 / PLOS ONE, CC BY)

Across all groups, fatalities were higher in the West and South than in the northern Midwest and Northeast. The data also shows large inequities in the rates at which white and black people were killed during police contact. "The northern Midwest and Northeast exhibited the most extreme black-white inequities in the nation, while in the South and Southwest these inequities were much lower," say experts. 

According to researchers, preventing fatal police violence in different areas of the country will likely require unique solutions. Estimates of the severity of these problems (overall rates, racial inequities, specific causes of death) in any given MSA are quite sensitive to which types of deaths are analyzed, and whether race and cause of death are attributed correctly, they explain. Experts emphasize that monitoring and mapping these rates using appropriate methods is critical for government accountability and successful prevention.

"Monitoring incidence rates and their racial/ethnic inequities allows public officials and the communities they represent to track the severity of the problem, devise preventive policies, and evaluate their efficacy. These monitoring efforts also have implications for racial/ethnic inequities in mental health and other health outcomes that are affected by stress from violence by state-sanctioned actors and law enforcement officer impunity. For example, the hypervigilance and psychologic distress associated with stop and frisk policing may also be greater in areas where there are known lethal consequences of police encounters," caution experts. 

The team has called for continued social-epidemiologic research to explain the geographic distribution of fatal police violence, overall and across race/ethnicity. They say more and better data, as well as an awareness of the varying historical contexts across the US at a metropolitan and even at a neighborhood level, will enable researchers to dig further into the reasons behind the disparities to address the public health issue of police-related fatalities in the US.

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