This article is part of the Guns & America explainer series. You can read other entries here.
Over the past several years, the problem of police violence in the U.S. has garnered worldwide attention: the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; and George Floyd in May 2020, among others.
Many of these cases highlight a particularly devastating problem: the impact of police violence on communities of color. While the raw total of white Americans killed by police is larger than other racial groups, statistics show people of color are killed by police at much higher rates.
How Common Is Fatal Police Violence?
According to the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fatal Force” database, police kill about 1,000 people annually in the U.S., a figure that hasn’t changed significantly over the past five years.
Until 2019, the federal government did not track the number of police killings of civilians in a centralized location. This led to an undercounting of these deaths because reporting these incidents was largely left to local law enforcement. As a result, some advocacy groups and journalists have stepped in to fill the void. These include Mapping Police Violence, which was started by activist Samuel Sinyangwe; Fatal Encounters, a catalog by journalist D. Brian Burghart; and the “Fatal Force” database. In 2019, police killed between 999-1,795 people, according to these various tracking systems.
In January 2019, the FBI started collecting data on police killings for its “Use of Force” database. But so far, the agency hasn’t released any data or findings from this project. An FBI spokesperson told Marketplace Morning Report in June 2020 that the first data release will occur sometime this summer.
Who Is Most Often Victimized By Police Violence?
While a majority of total victims of police violence are white, multiple studies have found that police violence disproportionately affects people of color.
A 2020 Harvard study of nearly 5,400 police-related fatalities in the U.S. from 2013-2017 found that Black people were on average three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Of the total fatalities, 2,353 (42.83%) of those killed were white and 1,487 (27.07%) were Black. Annual per capita rates of police-related deaths for Black people ranged from 0.43/100,000 to 2.10/100,000 compared with a range of death rates for white people of 0.08 to 1.10/100,000.
A 2019 study from Rutgers University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supported those findings: Police violence was found to be a leading cause of death of young men in the U.S., with Black men 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than white men.
Research from Boston University’s School of Public Health in December 2019 also found that the extent of a city’s segregation was a predictor of the Black/white racial disparity in fatal police shootings.
A controversial University of Maryland-led study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2019, looked at whether a police officer’s race could predict the races of civilians they killed in more than 900 encounters documented by the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. The authors found “no evidence” of racial disparities among shooting victims. But in April 2020, PNAS issued a correction to the study in which the authors acknowledged flaws in their analysis but stood by the conclusions. And in early July, those same authors retracted the study. They said they had been “careless when describing the inferences that could be made from our data,” specifically the conclusion that there was no statistically significant difference between the probability of a police officer shooting a Black person versus a white person.
Where Do Most Fatal Police Killings Happen?
A common assumption is that fatal police shootings most often occur in urban locations, because some of those areas are perceived to be plagued by high levels of community gun violence. But a study by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine in May 2020 found fatal police shooting rates were as high in rural areas as in urban areas. Suburban locations were found to have somewhat lower rates.
And a separate, 2019 study from Harvard suggests that different neighborhoods present disparate risks of police violence: Researchers found that the risk of Black people being killed by police was highest in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Police Violence and Gun Ownership
The role of gun prevalence in police violence is another area that has recently garnered attention. Some recent research has found a connection between the number of households who own guns in a state and the rate of police violence in those states. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Urban Health found that fatal police shootings were 40 percent more likely in states with higher rates of gun ownership.
The Future of Law Enforcement Encounters With Civilians
As communities continue to grapple with the problem of police violence, some are calling for alternative law enforcement models that proponents argue could reduce the number of people killed by police. These include defunding or reducing police department budgets and reallocating funding to social and economic programs aimed at addressing the root causes of community gun violence. The cities of Camden, New Jersey, and Minneapolis are trying this out, but the approach hasn’t yet been widely studied.
There is research, however, that suggests some other strategies may reduce police violence. Possible remedies with empirical support include:
- Eliminating 1033 programs that provide military-grade equipment to police departments. A 2017 study found a “significant relationship” between 1033 program transfers and police killings.
- Modifying language in police union contracts that limits officer liability, commonly known as “qualified immunity,” which shields officers from most civil lawsuits related to on-the-job conduct. A 2014 study by UCLA Law professor Joanna Schwarz found that officers were “financially responsible” for only “0.02% of the total dollars paid” in these lawsuits.
- Federal oversight of police departments. A 2017 Vice investigation found that DOJ supervision led, on average, to a nearly 30% decline in the number of police shootings.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.