Study Author Explains Extent to Which Police Violence Is a Public Health Hazard

    On August 5, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study on police killings in the United States. It adds evidence to growing public concern around this problem—which saw, for example, the American Public Health Association declare police violence to be a public health issue in November 2018.

    Researchers at Rutgers University, University of Michigan and Washington University in St. Louis calculated the risk of death by police violence for a range of demographics. They found that police violence is the sixth-leading cause of death for all young men—and that Black men overall are twice as likely to be killed as the overall population of men.

    Dr. Frank Edwards, an assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, was a co-author of the new study. “We don’t have any concise numbers on how likely people are to be killed by police, including lifetime risk, broken down by age, gender or race, like we do for any other common cause of death,” he told Filter. “So we thought it was important to provide these basic estimates. The data up until very recently hasn’t been of a high enough quality to do this analysis, because the federal government has systematically failed to collect data on police use-of-force.”

    Edwards noted that the best available evidence came from investigative journalists, who stepped up to a task that governments were failing to do. The researchers referred to Fatal Encounters, an online database of police use of fatal force that was founded by journalist D. Brian Burghart in 2013 when he realized there was no comparable national resource. In November 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the launch of its own National Use-of-Force program to create a standardized data set.

    Edwards and his colleagues compared the Fatal Encounters data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System, which collects data from medical examiners, coroners and other sources on deaths from all causes.

    The US Justice Department and its Bureau of Justice Statistics also collects data on local police departments, Edwards explained, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of police killings. “Most of our policing data is reported on a voluntary basis from police departments to the federal government,” he said. “A lot of departments choose not to participate in that data collection. They are not required to report this data, and they have a strong incentive against reporting if it makes their officers look bad.”

    According to the analysis by Edwards and his colleagues, one in every 2,000 men is killed by police, but that rises to one in every 1,000 for Black men. Latino and Native American men also face an increased risk of death by police violence. White, Asian American and Pacific Islander men have lower risks.

    The risks are much lower for women, though not insignificant. One in every 33,000 women dies by police violence, with Black and Native American women killed at higher rates than women of other races.

    The researchers determined that across all racial groups, police violence is the sixth-leading cause of death for men aged 25-29. Men and women of all races have the highest lifetime risk of death by police violence between ages 20-35.

    Edwards stressed that solutions to this problem need to look beyond mere policing reforms. “I think we need to give communities tools that aren’t police,” he said. “Police themselves will tell you they’re not equipped to solve the kinds of problems we ask them to. Whether it be poverty, substance abuse or mental health, police are not social workers. They’re trained to engage forcefully in situations and quickly neutralize potential threats, which often involves fatal violence.”

    Edwards hopes that this research will encourage cities and communities to think more critically about  relying on policing and the criminal justice systems.

    “It has been well demonstrated in academic research that the criminal justice system is a factor that leads to worse health outcomes for some groups,” he said. “If we consider policing as a public health hazard, we can think about alternatives to policing that are not only demonstrably better for public health, but also likely less expensive in the long run.


    Photo of protest against police violence in San Francisco, 2016 by Pax Ahimsa Gethen via WikiMedia Commons.

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