As 2016 comes to a close, a grim new study confirms what many of us already suspected: Looking at the United States’ entire population, African Americans are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police compared to whites, while Hispanics are almost twice as likely.
The new research was inspired by a July report by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer that found police were more likely to use force on African Americans and Hispanics, but no more likely to use deadly force—that is, officers were as likely to shoot at African Americans and Hispanics as at whites. Needless to say, the study was met with surprise, and highlighted the lack of good data on police shootings.
But, as James Buehler, a clinical professor of health management and policy at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, writes today in the American Journal of Public Health, at least some of the surprise stemmed from the way observers interpreted — or misinterpreted — the results.
Fryer’s study, Bueller points out, only looked at what happened after police have already stopped someone. “A different conclusion is apparent when a population-level perspective is taken,” Buehler writes. “That approach aims to identify all such deaths in a population and reflects not only the outcomes of police encounters, the focus of Fryer’s investigation, but also the likelihood of police encounters. That difference matters.”
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To show how much that differentiation matters, Buehler follows other recent studies in drawing on health-care data—in this case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiological Research—which he searched for instances of police killings involving firearms, explosives, gas, blunt objects, sharp objects, and other specified or unspecified means, excluding executions.
Buehler catalogued 2,285 legal intervention deaths from 2010 to 2014, or about 1.5 per million population per year, nearly all of which were men who’d been shot by police. Narrowing in on males over the age of 10—five children under 10 were killed by police during the study period—50 percent of those killed were non-Hispanic whites, 25.4 percent were non-Hispanic African American, and 20.5 percent were Hispanic.
…African Americans, for example, were 2.7 times as likely to be killed by police as whites. That difference reflects “substantial evidence [indicating] that Black individuals and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic individuals are more likely than White individuals to be stopped by police or arrested…
In other words, disproportionately large numbers of those killed by police were African American and Hispanic. African Americans, for example, were 2.7 times as likely to be killed by police as whites. That difference reflects “substantial evidence [indicating] that Black individuals and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic individuals are more likely than White individuals to be stopped by police or arrested,” Buehler writes.
“Altogether, this larger combination of factors adds up in a way that results in higher rates of legal intervention homicides among Black and Hispanic individuals than among White individuals,” Buehler adds, despite Fryer’s conclusion that police are no more likely to use deadly force against African Americans once they come into contact with them.