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Police: Sixth-leading cause of death for young black men

Elevated risk

For young men of color, police use-of-force is among the leading causes of death, according to a study from the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Washington University.

Police use-of-force — which includes asphyxiation, beating, a chemical agent, a medical emergency, a Taser, or a gunshot — trails accidental death, suicide, other homicides, heart, disease, and cancer as a leading cause of death for young black men, who have the highest risk of being killed by police.

About 100 in 100,000 black men and boys will be killed by police during their lives, while 39 white men and boys per 100,000 are killed by police. This means black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.

“It’s a striking number,” says study co-author Michael Esposito, a postdoctoral researcher in the Survey Research Center at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “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.

“This study shows us that police killings are deeply systematic, with race, gender, and age patterning this excess cause of death.”

The study uses data from a database called Fatal Encounters, a journalist-led effort to document deaths involving police. Deaths are gathered and categorized using news reports and public records. The researchers focused on deaths that involved police use-of-force but did not consider other causes of death, such as vehicular collision, suicide, overdose, or a fall.

“What motivated this study was a big gap in what was available in terms of basic estimates of how likely people are to be killed by police,” says lead author Frank Edwards, assistant professor at Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps a database on arrest-related deaths, but the database relies on self-reported incidents from police departments, Edwards says.

Another governmental database, the National Vital Statistics Report, archived by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tallies deaths related to legal intervention, but researchers have found that cases in which police are responsible for deaths are undercounted by about 50 percent.

The study also highlights that other minority groups are at a higher risk for death by police use-of-force — in particular, American Indian or Alaska Native women. The study found police killed approximately:

  • 36 American Indian and 81 Alaska Native men and boys per 100,000
  • 53 Latino men and boys per 100,000
  • Between 9 and 23 Asian and Pacific Islander men and boys per 100,000
  • 39 white men and boys per 100,000

Women are about 20 times less likely to be killed by police, according to the study.

Latina and Asian/Pacific Islander women are less likely than white women to be killed by police, but black women and American Indian and Alaska Native women face a higher risk. In fact, American Indian and Alaska Native women are up to twice as likely to be killed by police than white women.

“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,” U-M’s Esposito says. “Conversations around who’s most at risk have to incorporate the diversity and intersectionality highlighted in this study, fleshing out our narratives of why individuals with particular social traits have more or less exposure to police violence.”

For the study, the researchers did not include deaths that occurred because of car chases or accidents. Had they, risk of death for all groups of women would have doubled.

“I think our results really underscore that police killings are a lot more common than we might have imagined,” says study co-author Hedwig Lee, professor of sociology at 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 and Alaska Native women are at risk.”

Now that these risks have been documented, researchers’ next task is to get a better understanding of what drives these patterns, Lee says.

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