Updated November 13th, 2017
So far in 2017 (as of the end of October), unarmed blacks make up 30% of those that were unarmed and killed by police. However, according to the latest US Census estimates, blacks make up only 13.3% of the population.
In this case, “unarmed” is defined as no weapon of any kind. The good news is that the use of lethal force by police on those that are unarmed seems to be declining. However, blacks remain a disproportionate number of the victims.
Data source for figures above: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/
In 2015, nearly 15% of blacks that were killed by police were unarmed compared to just 6% of whites that were killed by police. Similarly, among the Hispanics killed by police, 11% were unarmed. However, likely due in large part to the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rate of blacks and Hispanics killed by police that were unarmed has dropped dramatically. See the figure below.
When comparing complete data of 2016 to 2015 (from a different data source, The Guardian, which stopped collecting the data after 2016), those that were unarmed (no weapon of any kind) that were killed by police continued to be disproportionally black, relative to the population size. However, the black/white racial discrepancy in the portion of the population compared to the portion of those that were unarmed when killed by police has decreased.
Below is a look at the percentages by race under all conditions (armed with a gun, knife, unarmed, etc.) when police used lethal force comparing 2015 and 2016.
While whites make up the greatest number and largest percentage of victims of lethal force by the police in the US, it remains important to compare the rates to the distribution in the general population. As is evident in the figure above, there was a slight increase in the percentage of victims of police use of lethal force that were white and slight decrease in the percentage that were black. However, relative to the percentage of the general population, blacks are still over-represented as victims of the police use of lethal force under all conditions (see below). Whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders are under-represented relative to their portion of the general population.
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The police killing of blacks has been splashed across the headlines for over a year and a half now and for much of the time we lacked data to decipher any trends.
Data is a crucial part of constructing sociological theory and empirical research.
Arguably, it should be a greater part of public debate and a greater influence on public policy decisions. In the last year and a half, the media coverage of, public concern about and social movement mobilization around the police killing of blacks has greatly increased. Several cases received particular media attention, in large part because of either the video coverage of the death (Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and others) or the subsequent protests (Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson).
The police seem to be disproportionally using lethal force on Black citizens. The best data available in 2015 and 2016 on this topic was from the Guardian newspaper out of UK. Due to the lack of any other systematic data collection on how many people police kill, the Guardian started a project they call, “The Counted”. Through police reports, their own investigation and readers tips, they have assembled this data and made it publically available. Click here to access the Guardian’s “The Counted” website. On the site, you can also access more news stories about each death and sort the data by state and other characteristics. The Washington Post continues to track this data in 2017.
When teaching this topic, any topic really, it is important to demonstrate to students how sociological conclusions come to be through empirical data, not the opinion of the professor or the view of select media outlets. Below I have generated several tables and figures analyzing data from “The Counted”. You can also download an Excel file of the data and use it in class. I use it for introductory Excel exercises in my Quantitative Research Methods course. The tables and figures below would also be good for the race section of any Introduction to Sociology course, a social problems course, a criminology class and/or a race and ethnic relations course. I hope you find it useful.
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When police kill a suspect or innocent bystander, does race matter?
Which racial or ethnic group in the US is the most frequent victim of deadly force from law enforcement officers? On the surface, the answer is clear, whites. You can see in the chart below that in 2015, in the US, 578 whites were killed by police. This is nearly double the number of blacks at 301. However, we need to compare these rates to the rates of each group in the general population. Of course (non-Hispanic) whites are the most frequent victims, they are the largest portion of the population – 62.2% in 2014 according to US Census estimates. If we lived in a society where one’s race had no impact, then we would expect to see the portion of each racial/ethnic group killed by police equal to that of the portion in the general population. That is not what is evident from the 2015 data.
Whites make up a disproportionally smaller portion of those killed by law enforcement compared to their portion of the general population – 11.3% less. Blacks, on the other hand, make up a disproportionally larger portion of those killed (26.5%) compared to the general population (13.2%) – 13.3% more or double!
Hispanics make up victims of lethal police force at about the same rate as they are in general US population, as do Native Americans. The data distinguish Arab Americans, but the US Census data does not. Asians made up a much lower portion of those killed by police relative to the portion of the general population (2.1% vs. 5.6%).
The same data as the table above is presented in column chart below. Here is visually evident the disproportionally higher percentage of blacks killed by police relative to population.
Being a law enforcement officer is a dangerous job. There are certainly times when lethal force by an officer is justified. When a suspect has a firearm, the police and any others in the area are at much greater risk and under most of these conditions it is at least understandable why deadly force is used. The table and chart below show the armed status of the victims in 2015. Just under half, 48.6%, of those killed by police were in possession of a known firearm. Meaning, it was visible during the interaction with the police. Almost a third had something other than a firearm. This included knives, vehicles, non-lethal (BB) guns, etc. However, US police still killed 223 people in 2015 alone that were completely unarmed. That is nearly a fifth of all those killed.
Most, 95.2%, of those killed by police in 2015 were men. The pie chart below shows that only 4.8% of the victims identified as anything other than male.
How were people in the US killed by police in 2015? Mostly by gunshots. The table and pie chart below shows that 89.1% of the people killed were killed by the officer(s) using their gun. Tasers, which are designed to be non-lethal, killed 49 people or 4.3% of the total. Forty-one people, or 3.6%, died in custody and 2.9% were struck by a vehicle (intentionally or on accident).
In 2014, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot on site by Cleveland police as he played with a toy gun. While the person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was probably fake, she failed to pass that along to the officers. The officers pulled up within feet of Tamir and killed him within seconds. How many others who were in possession of a nonlethal firearm (toy, BB gun, etc.) were killed by police in 2015? Thirty-seven. In the table below we see that blacks were disproportionate victims under these conditions.
If we just look at those that were unarmed, does the racialized pattern that disadvantages blacks continue? According to the data and shown in the table and chart below, unarmed whites continue to make up a smaller percentage of victims than their portion of the population, while unarmed blacks make up about two and a half times the portion of the unarmed victims compared to their portion of the general population.
The average age of those killed by law enforcement officers in the US in 2015 under all conditions was 37. The age distribution is surprisingly broad with a range of 6 to 87 years old. Just over 30% of the victims were between the ages of 18 to 29. Another 28% were between the ages of 30 to 39. Nineteen of those killed were minors under the age of 18. Surprisingly, 214 people who were killed by police in the US in 2015 were 50 years old or older! This accounts for nearly a fifth of the victims. The most prevalent age was 24 with 46 victims.
Through the analysis of this data a pattern emerges. Compared to their portion of the overall population, blacks are disproportionally the victims of lethal force by law enforcement officers, even when they are unarmed. While most of those killed by police were white, the portion of white victims is lower than the portion of whites in the general population, more than 10% lower. The vast majority of those killed by police were men and most died from gunshots. Only about half of the victims were armed with a gun themselves. The victims in 2015 varied widely in age, but most were between 18 and 39 years old. This data further solidifies the concerns and demands of the Black Lives Matters movement; there is a pattern of police using deadly force disproportionally on blacks that needs to be addressed by policy makers and police departments across the nation.
Teach well, it matters.
Click here to access PowerPoint slides of all the tables and charts above
Also, see some of my other related posts on this topic (click on the titles below to go to the full post):
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“Instead of making officers more accountable and transparent to the public, body cameras may be making officers and departments more powerful than they were before. … First, many officers are (either earnestly or conveniently) forgetting to activate their cameras when they’re supposed to. Take the case of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed 31-year-old black man who was fatally shot this month by local police officers in Washington, D.C., after his motorcycle crashed into their car. Contrary to District of Columbia policy, no officer at the scene activated their body camera until after the shooting. The city released footage of Sterling’s final moments this week—but that video begins more than a minute after shots were fired. …. The third threat is that many states have introduced or passed new laws that restrict public access to footage while preserving police access.”
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The federal government will soon require police departments and law enforcement agencies to report information on the deaths of any citizens when interacting with police – during a traffic stop, after arrest, in jail, etc. The data will be gathered quarterly and will hopefully address any the gaps in the data that others, like the Guardian above, have tried to fill.
The Washington Post also kept track of people killed by police in 2015 and they continue to do so in 2016. Their final count for 2015 was 990 people killed by police, compared to the Guardian’s count of 1,136 for the same period in the US. The lists will have to be analyzed more closely to determine the discrepancies between the lists. Similar to the Guardian, The Washington Post allows people to sort by race, gender, weapon (if any possessed by the victim), and age. However, they also allow for the sorting by any signs of mental illness of the victim and “threat level” that includes under attack, other and undetermined.
The Washington Post data for 2015 indicates that there were 38 unarmed Black people (compared to 32 unarmed Whites) killed by police in the US, the Guardian reports 79 unarmed Black people (compared to 103 unarmed Whites) killed by police.
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And from earlier, this article explains why other national data is highly problematic, click on the image to link to the full article
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Also from last year, an article exploring the weakness in the FBI data on civilians killed by police. Click on the image to be linked to the full article.
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“With increasing use of police body cameras come new tests of transparency and trust. This half-hour documentary looks at the consequences for law enforcement and communities, from the rollout to the courtroom.”
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