Police Are One of the Leading Causes of Death for Young Men in the US 

It's “an exceptionally and depressingly common issue."

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Nearly three Americans are killed by police every day. This means that, of all the homicide victims in the United States, police kill an estimated six percent of those individuals. But the actual numbers are likely higher: Researchers say that government data is woefully inadequate, so the best available datasets have been created by journalist-driven public programs. New research on one of these resources shows that police violence is even deadlier for one group of Americans than previously suspected.

In a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of sociologists and criminal justice researchers used data compiled by the National Vital Statistic System’s mortality files, as well as Fatal Encounters (FE), a journalist-led database, to create one of the few comprehensive baseline estimates available for how often Americans are killed by police.

They determined that police violence is one of the leading causes of death of young men in the United States. Overall, it’s estimated that the mortality rate is about 1.8 per 100,000 for men between the ages of 25 and 29. This ranks police use-of-force as the sixth leading cause of death for young men, placing it behind other public health issues like suicide and “accidents” — a category that includes drug overdoses and car accident deaths.

“Police are a substantial cause of death in the United States across groups,” first author Frank Edwards, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “They are contributing to early mortality for lots of people. Prior to this study, we didn’t fully appreciate the scale of that.”

Edwards is an assistant professor at Rutgers-Newark School of Criminal Justice, and his previous research established that an average of 3.25 people are killed by police every day. He describes it as “an exceptionally and depressingly common issue” that’s compounded by a lack of accurate data.

Minnesotans protest the treatment of Marcus Abrams by St. Paul police.

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The National Vital Statistics, for instance, which operates under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undercounts police killings by at least 50 percent. The “arrest-related deaths” program operated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics is currently inactive. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently pursuing a redesign of that program with the aim of incorporating the methods used by journalist-led organizations like Fatal Encounters and The Guardian’s “The Counted.” These projects identify cases through public records and news coverage, and each data-point is validated against published documents.

“We should think of these as conservative numbers,” Edwards says. “The true number is likely higher. But we don’t know by how much it is higher.”

The numbers that they do have are striking, and they emphasize that the risk of being killed by police is greatly influenced by one’s race, gender, and age. That dataset includes 11,456 police-caused homicides between 2013 and 2017, and it reveals several crucial comparisons. Here’s just a few:

  • Black men face a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police over their lifetime. That compares to about 1 in 2,000 for men in general and about 1 in 33,000 for women.
  • Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white women.
  • American Indian men are 1.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, while American Indian women are about 1.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white women.
  • Latino men are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Latina women are 1.2 times less likely to be killed than white women.

Amid these discouraging numbers, police departments are not required by law to report these homicides. Edwards explains that most law enforcement data we have consists of voluntary reporting. He says this is why we have never had a good federal data system: When reporting is voluntary, there’s a strong disincentive for police departments to provide the numbers. Reporting fatalities is not a good look for departments.

A protester in 2018.

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“There are many police departments that will not report the data unless they are obliged to,” Edwards says. “I suspect even if the federal government did create a new voluntary data system, it would still be a dramatic undercount because participation would never be 100 percent.”

Some police departments, like those in New York, Dallas, and New Orleans, do release their “use of force” numbers — but data also suggests that there’s a particularly high risk of police-involved death in rural counties. This study emphasizes that the US needs a comprehensive system that tracks all police-related deaths with transparency: In order to make reforms, or even to accurately assess trends, there first needs to be a complete idea of what precisely is going on.

We use novel data on police-involved deaths to estimate how the risk of being killed by police use-of-force in the United States varies across social groups. We estimate the lifetime and age-specific risks of being killed by police by race and sex. We also provide estimates of the proportion of all deaths accounted for by police use-of-force. We find that African American men and women, American Indian / Alaska Native men and women, and Latino men face higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. We find that Latino women and Asian / Pacific Islander men and women face lower risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. Risk is highest for Black men, who (at current levels of risk) face about a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police over the life course. The average lifetime odds of being killed by police are about 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Risk peaks between the ages of 20 and 35 for all groups. For young men of color, police use-of-force is among the leading causes of death.
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