Guest post by Dr. Farah Kudrath. Farah is an MD, MPH with a background in journalism. She is currently studying preventive medicine at Emory University.
The disproportionate use of lethal force against black people in the US is a divisive issue—and we aren’t exactly hurting for divisive issues these days. Much has been written about lethal force, capital punishment, the fallibility of witness testimony, the broken criminal justice system, mass incarceration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and its counter-movement, Blue Lives Matter—so much so that one wonders if there’s anything left to be said. After all, there are those who believe there is a problem with racism in policing, and those who believe that police have a very dangerous job and are doing their best.
Understandably, there is a lot of exposed, raw emotion among Black and Latino Americans, who in times of need think twice about calling the police. However, while this may be part of the lived experience of these groups it is not part of the experience for those who may fly a Blue Lives Matter flag outside their homes. Are all these people racist? Are all the white police officers involved in killing black people racist? These are difficult questions to answer, and honestly, I think they are the wrong questions to ask.
A new article published in the American Journal of Public Health digs into this issue by going beyond the details of individual incidents of police-involved death. They used independent data obtained through news reports, obituaries, and public records to calculate the risk of police-involved death by race and place between 2012 and 2018. They compared the mortality risks of Black, Latino, and White men and found that the risk of being killed by police is 3.2 to 3.5 times higher for Black men compared to White men. For Latino men, the risk is 1.4 to 1.7 times higher than White men. The researchers compared data in rural and urban areas and across the US, and found that Black men are at higher risk for police-involved mortality throughout the country.
The researchers in the study wrote:
“Narratives around fatal interactions between officers and civilians, as reported in the news, often reduce encounters to moments of crisis…Individualizing narratives, however, masks the broader social forces that lead to distinct geographic and racial inequities in police homicide risk. Our results suggest that the risk of being killed in a violent interaction with the police depends not only on idiosyncratic circumstances and individual choices but also on the interplay between one’s race/ethnicity and the broader contextual environment in which policing occurs.”
This illuminates what most of us can’t iterate in conversations with friends and family who don’t recognize the problem—whether or not a teenager looked like they had a gun, or the man was mentally ill and holding a knife, or if he was running away from or toward police, the numbers capture the larger picture of what’s happening in the United States. It moves the charge of racism from the individual cop, who might have been doing what he or she thought was best, and places it where it belongs: American society as a whole. I understand that the individual officers pulled the trigger and their families should demand justice where justice is due, but for those of us who are having conversations with friends and family who don’t see their own privilege, don’t bother arguing about whether or not these individual officers were racist. That’s not the point. The numbers in this article and many others tell the bigger story, and that story is much harder to deny. Yes, police lives matter. But what we need to talk about today is the story these numbers are telling us.
Risk of Police-Involved Death by Race/Ethnicity and Place, United States, 2012-2018
The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same: Race, Ethnicity, and Police Brutality