13 November 2020

Fatal Police Shootings

Welcome back. Living in the D.C. area for more than 20 years, I was a regular reader of The Washington Post. I still see selected articles, but most of the content goes by. I wasn’t aware, for example, that the newspaper started logging every fatal shooting in the U.S. by an on-duty police officer.

The Post began that project after its investigation of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, Jr., in Ferguson, Mo., found the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. Reporting by police departments is voluntary and many don’t.

The Post’s “Fatal Force” database begins on 1 January 2015; relies primarily on news accounts, social media postings and police reports; is updated as new information is obtained; and is searchable by state, gender, race, age, mental illness, weapon, body camera, fleeing the scene, year, as well as name.

The Washington Post’s database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers (from www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/).
Although The Washington Post makes the database available publicly, a team of medical researchers affiliated with Penn, Yale and Drexel universities judged it was critical that fatal police shootings of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) be recognized and treated as a public health emergency. Toward that end, they decided to enter the data into the scientific literature and present it using methods that are accepted by science as rigorous and robust.

Relative Rates of Fatal Police Shootings
For their recently published study, the researchers conducted a longitudinal analysis of 4,653 of the 5,367 fatal police shootings listed through May 2020, omitting those lacking race/ethnicity or age details.

Using generalized linear-mixed models to capture trends with time and rates relative to respective populations, they found shootings of BIPOC, whether armed or unarmed, were essentially constant from 2015 to 2020 and significantly higher than that of Whites. 

Fatal U.S. police shootings by ethnicity, 1 Jan 2015–14 July 2020; graphic’s end date is several weeks after that of study (The Washington Post data; www.statista.com/chart/21857/people-killed-in-police-shootings-in-the-us/).
For armed victims, the rates that Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics were killed were, respectively, 3 times, 2.6 times and 1.3 times higher than the rate Whites were killed. For unarmed victims, the rates that Blacks and Hispanics were killed were, respectively, 3 times and 1.4 times the rate of Whites. The average age of Whites killed was 38; Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics were younger, 31, 30 and 33, respectively.

Years of Life Lost
The researchers also calculated the estimated years of life lost by race/ethnic group. Basing the estimates on national historical life expectancy data for U.S. citizens in the victim's birth year vs. age at death, they found an average 31,960 years of life lost annually due to police shootings. Relative to Whites, the years of life lost were 4 times higher for Native Americans, 3.3 and 3.5 times higher for Blacks overall and unarmed, and 1.6 times higher for Hispanics overall and unarmed.

Another, more difficult factor to quantify is that Blacks report worse mental health in areas where there are police killings.

A center-of-the-road memorial to Michael Brown, Jr., for the 5th anniversary of his fatal shooting by a police officer, 9 Aug 2014; the neighborhood memorial was in place on 8 Aug and will be guarded overnight by the man in the folding chair (photo by Robert Cohen for St. Louis Dispatch, rcohen@post-dispatch.com).
Wrap Up
Why should the number of fatal police shootings be almost the same, nearly 1,000, every year since the Post started its tally? The database website points to probability theory for a possible explanation. In essence, the quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major societal changes. For police shootings, that change could involve a fundamental shift in police culture or restrictions on gun ownership.

Treating the shootings as a public health emergency, the researchers note that what has been done at the local level--body cameras and independent investigations--is insufficient. It must be raised to the state and national level and codified into law.

So, should it be more Law and Order, more Black Lives Matter or…well, what do you suggest? Thanks for stopping by.

The Washington Post “Fatal Force” website: www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
Study of fatal police shootings in Jour. of Epidemiology & Community Health: jech.bmj.com/content/early/2020/10/20/jech-2020-215097
Articles on study on EurekAlert! and Yale University websites:
CDC’s definitions of years of potential life lost: www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/fatal_help/definitions_ypll.html

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