Police-involved deaths vary by race and place

(Reuters Health) - Black and Latino men are twice as likely as white men to die during interactions with police, according to a new study.

Police-involved fatalities in the U.S. average nearly three deaths per day, researchers write in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Based on what we see in the media and the sheer volume of deaths we’ve seen covered in the last five years, this is a common event but the official data is woefully inadequate,” said study leader Frank Edwards of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Criminal justice data, which is primarily collected through the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest-Deaths program or the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Report, relies on voluntary reporting by police departments and often has limited geographic coverage, he said.

“Research on policing in the U.S. is often focused on New York, Chicago or L.A., but it’s important to direct our attention to the tremendous volume happening outside of big cities,” Edwards told Reuters Health by phone. “We wanted to draw attention to the link between race, place and the risk of death.”

Edwards and colleagues analyzed data from Fatal Encounters, a public site that aims to document all episodes of fatal police-civilian interactions in the U.S. ( It includes homicides, suicides and accidental deaths, and all cases are fact-checked against published accounts before being added to the public data set. The site is run by D. Brian Burghart, a former editor and publisher of the Reno News and Review and a journalism instructor at the University of Nevada in Reno.

The research team looked at the 6,296 police-involved homicides with adult male victims recorded on Fatal Encounters between 2012-2018, focusing on cases where the cause of death was asphyxiation, beating, a chemical agent, a medical emergency, a taser or a gunshot. They didn’t include deaths from falls, drowning, drug overdoses, stabbings, fire or undetermined status. They then calculated county-level estimates of police-involved deaths by race/ethnicity, region and urban-rural types.

They found an average of 1,028 deaths per year, or 2.8 deaths per day. Overall, police were involved in 8 percent of U.S. homicides of adult males. During the six-year study period, black men were killed by police at a rate of 2.1 per 100,000 people, Latino men were killed at a rate of 1 per 100,000 and white men were killed at a rate of 0.6 men per 100,000.

On average, rates of police-involved fatalities were highest in large metropolitan areas and lowest in suburban areas. By region, the Mountain states - Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico - had the highest rate of police-involved homicides across the population, at 17 percent The Middle Atlantic states - New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania - had the lowest rate, at 5 percent.

“We knew the numbers would be high, but this is higher than what we expected,” Edwards said.

A limitation of the study is that Fatal Encounters depends on public records and media reports, so cases are likely missing if they weren’t reported by news outlets, particularly in places that don’t have media coverage or don’t publish online.

Edwards and colleagues are studying additional racial groups, particularly Native Americans and Asians, as well as gender and age. For instance, Native American men and women seem to have much higher risks of death in encounters with police. The research team is also interested in the social, political and economic environments that may boost warrants and traffic stops in small communities.

“History is relevant. We should always ask the questions: How have our laws (and law enforcement) historically worked against people of color? Why do we allow these patterns to continue to reproduce?” said Sirry Alang of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who wrote an editorial that was published with the study.

Alang, who wasn’t involved with this study, has researched police brutality and poor health outcomes among black men and women, including arrests.

“Police-involved deaths are place-based just as policies are place-based,” she told Reuters Health by email. “Structural racism in the form of policies that lead to racial residential segregation, for example, increase disproportionately fatal policing of people of color.”

“It is not just about race/ethnicity. It is also about where you live, work, play and age as a black or Latinx person that puts you at risk of being killed by the police,” Alang said. “This does not surprise black and Latinx people in the United States. We have always tried to figure out where is safe for people who look like us, where we are less likely to get discriminated against, hassled, or killed simply because of the color of our skin.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online July 19, 2018.