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Study: U.S. Police Killings Have Increased Since 1980 — And Black Americans Face The Highest Risk Of Death

Topline

Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police violence over the last 40 years, according to a study published Thursday by The Lancet that asserts that police killings have grown more common in recent years and are vastly underreported.

Key Facts

About 32,000 Americans died due to police violence from 1980 to 2019, researchers estimated in Thursday’s study, which analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several independently run databases of police killings.

The police mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black people was 0.69 out of 100,000 over that time period, compared to a rate of 0.35 for Hispanics, 0.2 for non-Hispanic white Americans and 0.15 for non-Hispanic members of other races.

The researchers also said police deaths have climbed in the United States in recent decades: The country’s police violence mortality rate stood at about 0.34 per 100,000 people after 2010, up from 0.25 per 100,000 in the 1980s.

The mortality rate for white people jumped from 0.15 in the 1980s to 0.28 in the 2010s, while the Black death rate fell from 0.81 to 0.71, but Black Americans still consistently had a higher police-related mortality rate than any other group, the study found.

Surprising Fact

The study’s authors also estimated the CDC-run National Vital Statistics System, a common source of mortality data, undercounted police-related deaths by over 55%. The researchers came up with estimates for police deaths by weighing NVSS plus three more recent data sources that only cover killings for part of the study’s 40-year span: An investigative project by The Guardian and the websites Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters. NVSS’ underreporting issue — possibly caused by missing information on death certificates — “obfuscates and minimises the larger public health issue,” the study said.

Tangent

Researchers have warned about underreporting of police violence-related deaths for years. More than half of all U.S. police killings in 2015 weren’t recorded by death certificates, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Harvard and other institutions.

Crucial Quote

“Recent high-profile police killings of Black people have drawn worldwide attention to this urgent public health crisis, but the magnitude of this problem can’t be fully understood without reliable data,” Fablina Sharara, a researcher at the University of Washington who co-authored Thursday’s study, said in a statement.

Key Background

Fatal interactions between police officers and civilians — particularly unarmed Black people — have drawn more attention in recent years, fueling bouts of nationwide protests and calls for police reform. Beyond the headlines, some research suggests Black people are disproportionately likely to be killed by police, though white people — who make up a far larger share of the U.S. population — account for a larger number of total police deaths. A 2019 study found Black men have a 1-in-1,000 lifetime risk of being killed by law enforcement, 2.5 times the rate for white men, and a Washington Post tracker of police shootings since 2015 found the death rate for Black people was more than double the rate for white people.

Further Reading

What the data say about police brutality and racial bias — and which reforms might work (Nature)

How many police shootings a year? No one knows (Washington Post)

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