By Barrington M. Salmon – Contributing Writer A new study has found that use of force by law enforcement in the U.S. is among the leading causes of death for young Black men. According to the research, people who are American Indian and Alaska Native, Black or Latino are more likely to be killed by police than people who are White. Blacks have especially high lifetime risks of being killed by police. About one in 1,000 Black men and boys likely are killed by police, said the study’s lead researcher Dr. Frank Edwards. Meanwhile, for Native American and Alaska Native men and boys, the lifetime risk of being killed by police is about one in 2,000. Significantly, young men and women are at a great risk of being killed by police. Between the ages of 25 and 29, about two out of every 100,000 young men in the U.S. are killed by police, while about 0.1 of every 100,000 women die under similar circumstances. That risk is most pronounced for young men and women of color with Blacks 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White people and for Black women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely.
“I was very surprised that the lifetime risk was so high for men of all racial and ethnic groups,” Dr. Edwards told The Final Call. “I was also surprised that police violence was the leading cause of death of young Black men ages 25-29. I think there are a few implications. The study is one piece of evidence that police are a threat to public health. A lot of other research has shown that aggressive policing isn’t the best way to police.” The report was released Aug. 5. “There’s also evidence that when Black people are stopped, they can suffer PTSD, and being stopped can increase their fear of being outside. Police encounters are especially harmful to the Black community and communities of color more broadly.” Dr. Edwards said this study and others are a strong call to respond to this threat by looking at police violence as a public health concern “which may help us shift that perspective toward the needs of the community, and away from situations that unnecessarily pit police officers against the communities they’re supposed to serve.” The study, titled “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States by Age, Race-ethnicity and Sex,” is co-authored by Dr. Hedwig (Hedy) Lee, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis; and social scientist Michael Esposito of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “I think that our results really underscore that police killings are a lot more common than we might have imagined,” Dr. Lee said in an interview with The Source, a publication at the Washington University in St. Louis. “Our work also provides more evidence that people of color, particularly African American men and women, but also American/Indian Alaska Native women are at risk. The next task for researchers is to get a better understanding of what is driving these patterns now that we have documented them.” Mr. Esposito agreed. “It’s a striking number,” he said in an interview published by ClickonDetroit. “There have been arguments about how widespread of a problem this is. We didn’t have a good estimate about whether it’s a few cases that received a lot of media attention.” Mr. Esposito noted that the results of the study illustrate the risk from police for all ethnic groups. “Because a lot of our talk about this in public spaces is focused on black men, we sometimes lose sight of other groups with elevated risk,” he continued in the ClickonDetroit interview. Dr. Lee echoed Dr. Edwards’ comments, saying that more data needs to be accumulated so that researchers and the public gain a better understanding of what’s at play. “I think that our results really underscore that police killings are a lot more common than we might have imagined,” she said. The trio looked at data collected by Fatal Encounters, a dataset maintained by journalist and former newspaper editor D. Brian Burghart. The staff at Fatal Encounters conducts systematic searches of online news, social media and public records to provide a close-to-comprehensive and up-to-date archive of documented police killings. That was necessary, Dr. Edwards said, because there’s a wide gap in what was available in terms of basic estimates of how likely people are to be killed by police. He said the Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps a database on arrest-related deaths, but the database depends on the police departments self-reporting. Another governmental database, the National Vital Statistics Report which is housed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, counts deaths caused by legal intervention, but researchers have found that cases in which police are responsible for those deaths are undercounted by up to 50 percent. Dr. Edwards said he and his colleagues would not have been able to complete this study without data from Fatal Encounters. “The data we used to track risk of death is new,” he said. “It would not have been possible without the data from Fatal Encounters. The feds don’t track data and the criminal justice information that is reported, most of it is voluntary. It’s a huge disincentive for police departments to report deaths. A lot of them just don’t bother.” The Fatal Encounters database as well as others, such as the Washington Post project, indicates that since 2000, between 1,000 and 1,200 people have been killed every year by law enforcement. According to the Society Toolbox, using data updated on August 24, 2018, “data collected by the Washington Post on the use of lethal force by police officers since 2015 indicate that, relative to the portion of the population, Blacks are over-represented among all those killed by police under all circumstances. U.S. Census estimates show that Blacks make up 13 percent of the population. However, in 2015 they accounted for 26 percent of those that were killed by police, in 2016, 24 percent and in 2017, 23 percent of all those killed by police. In other words, Blacks were the victims of the lethal use of force by police at nearly twice their rate in the general population. Whites make up the plurality of victims of police use of lethal force (47% in 2017), but they also make the majority of the population (61% in 2018).” It is these numbers and the deaths of primarily unarmed Blacks by cops or people acting in a law enforcement capacity—including Trayvon Martin, Natasha McKenna, Alton Sterling, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Aiyana Jones, Stephon Clarke, Philando Castile and Sean Bell—which angered the Black community and led to formation of the Black Lives Matter movement and other forms of protest and civil disobedience. In almost all these cases, the perpetrators walked free and even as the debate rages about what a fair and just police force looks like, Black communities are demanding to be treated with respect and dignity, voting out complicit district and states’ attorney and embracing restorative justice as the way forward. Chief Norm Stamper began his career as a beat cop in San Diego in 1966 and retired in the 1990s as chief of the Seattle Police Department. The author of two books on good policing, he has been a persistent and thoughtful critic of current police tactics and the way departments interact with Black communities. “The system itself, policing is broken,” he said in earlier interviews with this reporter. “Tragically, it has been broken from the very beginning of the institution. It has evolved as a paramilitary, bureaucratic, organizational arrangement that distances police officers from the communities they’ve been sworn to protect and serve.” Chief Stamper contends in his book, “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police,” that it’s when police officers get into what he calls “discretionary marginal contacts” that they abuse their power. If it’s true that if one officer out of the million police officers we have in this country shoot somebody without authorization, without legal standing, and we can say that’s the exception then let’s go ahead and deal with that individual, he explains. “But when we have shooting after shooting after shooting that most people would define as at least questionable, it’s time to look, not just at a few bad apples, but the barrel. And I’m convinced that it is the barrel that is rotted,” he concludes. Chief Stamper said police departments have become increasingly militarized, are resistant to change and are protected by police unions, prosecutors, judges and others in the criminal justice system. Other critics argue that the police are basically people who don’t live in Black communities, and are essentially occupiers who are afraid of and generally have no desire to forge any type of meaningful relationship with the people they purport to serve. Throw in racism, negative stereotypes of criminality surrounding Blacks in America, White fear and other factors, and it’s not surprising that police-Black community relations are often fraught with distrust, suspicion and extra-judicial killings. Chief Stamper describes most of America’s 18,000 police departments’ organizational structures as anachronistic, paramilitary, rigidly bureaucratic which “produces a workplace culture that serves as a breeding ground for racism, corruption, sexual predation, brutality, unjustified lethal force, and excessive militarism.” While there are many good cops, he said, the way officers act is a function not just of the culture, but also the power they wield which makes them feel as if they can do what they want. “It’s an arrogance that afflicts too many officers,” said Chief Stamper who was in law enforcement for 36 years, the last six years in Seattle, Washington, leading the department. “It causes them to believe that they’re above the law. What we’re facing from institutions in Seattle, San Diego, the NYPD is an undercurrent of racism and abusive practices that lead to excessive force, lethal force and sexual predation. “I’ve made the case in my book that it’s time to restructure the institution,” he said. “You hear about bad apples but it’s time to recognize that if we continue to have these incidents and call them bad apples, we need to look at the barrel. The very structure and organization of police departments is dysfunctional.” He said it’s time to demilitarize the police and significantly increase civilian participation. “It is time to give the community a much stronger voice and if the invitation isn’t forthcoming, then citizens should demand a place at the table,” he said. “The police belong to the people, not the other way around. In my view, citizens should play a major role in selection of officers, training, policies and procedure because those cops are policing their neighborhoods. As a people, we make a big mistake by ceding 100 percent responsibility for public safety to local law enforcement.” Dr. Edwards and Lee said though this research provides more accurate data on the use of deadly force by police, they cautioned that the data is not complete. “The new data that we’re using are capturing a lot more cases than what the official data are showing us, but there is still an undercount,” said Dr. Edwards. They said new research methods offer a more accurate picture of these incidents across the nation, but more research is needed to understand the social factors related to violence between police and civilians. “Police have become first responders to all circumstances,” Dr. Edwards said, with the police themselves acknowledging that they’re not equipped to respond to many of the situations they’re required to handle. “We’re dealing with a public health problem. It’s important to emphasize public health and quality of life issues,” he said.
Barrington Salmon has been writing professionally in the United States, Ethiopia, the US Virgin Islands and elsewhere for more than 25 years. Barrington has written for publications as varied as Voice of America, BET.com, The Washington Times, Convergence and Diverse Issues in Education, ACUMEN Magazine and the Washington Times. He writes for several newspapers and publications including The Final Call, The Washington Informer, Black Press USA and Trice Edney Newswire. One of the highlights of his writing career was serving as Mayor Marion S. Barry’s speechwriter for about three years. His website is BarringtonSalmonWrites.com and Barrington is on social media, including Twitter and Facebook.