Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Gun Violence, Public Health

A week of calamity and sadness

July 14, 2016

More deaths at the hands of police and new research reports on police use of force

Last week, we watched in shock as a black man in Minnesota, Philando Castile, presumably bled to death after he’d been stopped by police for a broken taillight, and then was shot four times by the policeman who had stopped him. His fiancée recorded the horrible event as her 4-year-old child sat in the back seat. We wonder, shocked, “Why did it happen?” And the question on so many minds, “Would this have happened if he were white?” This, barely 24 hours after another killing in Baton Rouge, LA. They continue.

About the same time, two different reports of studies regarding police and civilian interactions were released. I’m not an expert on the judicial system or police data, but I read the papers, because I wanted to understand whether the perceptions I and others have—of bias in how people of different races are treated by police—is true. The data are difficult to sort through, because there is no mandated national registry into which police officers or their departments must report use-of-force events. So, there’s reporting bias. Still, these studies covered a lot of situations and cases, and they used multiple data sources which helps to counter bias. What the reports found, overall, is, first, that use-of-force is a rare event when people are stopped by police. However, blacks, especially, are more likely than whites to experience non-lethal use-of-force at the hands of police when they are stopped and are “compliant” with what they are told to do, upon being stopped. The New York Times quoted Aislinn Sol, organizer of the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter, “The evidence is becoming overwhelming and incontrovertible that it is a systemic problem, rather than an isolated one.”

While there are regional differences in non-lethal use-of-force events, there are significant differences by race across these studies. However, as the second study I’ll cover indicated, there wasn’t a significant difference by race in police shootings. This finding may seem counterfactual, because we’re seeing and hearing what appear to be race-based shootings in many different parts of the country. As a result, I’ve believed there are differences by race in shootings, and so have many other people.

A report by the Center for Policing Equity, a New York think tank, The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force, examined 19,000 use-of-force episodes from police departments across the U.S. It showed that the vast majority of interactions between civilians and police officers do not result in injuries or violence. However, in the 2 percent of cases when force is used, the race of the person is significant. Non-lethal use-of-force is 3.6 times higher for African-Americans than for whites. And it is not, because African-Americans are more likely to have been involved in criminal activity. Also, severity of force is significantly higher in blacks than whites. That’s not just opinion anymore; it’s evidence-based.

The data are complex, however, and the conclusions are not always what we expect. Dr. Roland Fryer, an economist and the youngest African American to be awarded tenure at Harvard, said he wanted to “collect a bunch of data and try to understand what really is going on when it comes to racial differences in police use-of-force.” He and student researchers systematically assembled data from 1,332 police reports of shootings in several areas of the country. On non-lethal uses of force, “blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police.” Regarding shootings by police officers, the study authors concluded that their data did not support a finding of significant racial differences. Fryer said that “It is the most surprising result of my career.”

These studies showed significant racial differences in police non-lethal use-of-force but not in shootings. More data are needed to understand and address fatal confrontations between police officers and civilian, and it is possible that the true outcomes are masked by bias in how data are collected and reported.

Killings of police officers

And then, as if the shocking news from Baton Rouge and Minneapolis wasn’t enough, a related tragedy struck. In the very city where a sniper had waited with hate in his heart to kill President Kennedy so many years ago, another angry man waited to kill and harm police officers—and killed five officers doing their jobs that night.

On Sunday, I heard an interview on NPR with Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle police department and author of a new book called To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police which I am reading. The dedication:

To the survivors:
Those who have lost loved ones through wrongful acts of law enforcement,
Those who have lost police officers to on-the-job violence

It is a tragedy when police officers are killed in the line of duty. Their lives matter. It is a tragedy when black men and others are killed at the hands of police. Their lives matter. All lives matter, and we need to find solutions that end the violence.

A way forward?

 Stamper said the only hope for the future is in authentic relationships between police and communities. That makes sense to me. That—and getting guns out of the hands of angry, disturbed people intent on killing. Of course, it will take much more than that, including attention to what we, in public health, call social determinants—the inequities that keep too many people trapped in low-wage jobs, unemployed and less healthy. There could be a role for public health here, because people in public health know how to build authentic relationships with communities. It’s worth thinking about.

Meanwhile, the killing goes on.


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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.