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Are police officers more likely to shoot an African-American man than a white one?
A new analysis of death certificates calculates that black males were almost three times more likely than whites to die at the hands of U.S. police, but the study fails to fill gaping holes in national law-enforcement reports about deadly use of force.
“We’re really good at counting all sorts of things, but not when police departments kill citizens,” epidemiologist Cassandra Crifasi said in a phone interview.
The new report online December 20th in the American Journal of Public Health relies on what she described as “poor” death-certificate data on police killings. Crifasi, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, was not involved in the new study.
“I’m not going to say there are not racial disparities in use-of-force deaths, but we just don’t have good enough data to get a national estimate,” she said.
FBI Director James B. Comey also has lamented a dearth of statistics on police use of force.
He told a gathering of police chiefs last year that “Americans actually have no idea . . . whether black people or brown people are more likely to be shot during police encounters than white people.”
The problem is that the federal government bases its count of police killings on data provided voluntarily by police departments, which in the past has “resulted in a significant underestimate of the number of annual arrest-related deaths," according to a report this month from the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice.
In the current study, Dr. James Buehler of Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia turned to death-certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 2010 until 2014, death certificates identified 2,285 legal-intervention deaths in the U.S., 96 percent of them fatal shootings and 96 percent of them deaths of males.
Though white males accounted for the largest number, blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, the study found. And Hispanic men were 1.7 times more likely than whites to be killed by officers.
“The fact that there’s nearly a three-fold greater likelihood that a black man is going to die from lethal intervention as a white man is striking,” Buehler said in a phone interview.
He undertook the study in part to counter another well-publicized recent study that found no racial bias in police use of deadly force. (bit.ly/2hooYqh)
The author of the prior study, Roland Fryer, Jr., an economics professor at Harvard University, declined a request to comment on the current study.
Fryer told The New York Times that his finding that blacks were no more likely than whites to die in police shootings surprised him. His work is not the definitive answer, Fryer wrote in his paper, but rather just “takes first steps into the treacherous terrain of understanding the extent of racial differences in police use of force.” He has called for more research on the question that has sparked nationwide outrage and protests.
“What I’m simply trying to do is to make sure we don’t lose track of the fact we have a problem,” Buehler said.
Since a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, video after video of police shootings has seemed to provide further proof of uneven justice.
But videos are not data, and the death-certificate data on which the current study relied is incomplete, Crifasi said.
“Generally, the consensus among researchers is that the data on death certificates is really poor,” she said. “There may be a disincentive to indicate that somebody was killed by police.”
If half the data is missing, you cannot make any assumptions about which half, she said.
“The data we have is not sufficient to properly answer the question,” she said.