On August 31, Dijon Kizzee, a Black man, was shot and killed as he fled from police in Los Angeles, California. On September 2, new video emerged of Daniel Prude, a Black man, being suffocated with a “spit hood” by police in Rochester, New York, earlier this spring. On August 18, Adrian Jason Roberts, a mentally ill Black Army veteran, was killed by police serving Roberts an involuntary commitment order in Cumberland County, North Carolina.
Since March 13 and the tragic killing of Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, the police have killed 83 Black people, according to the Washington Post. Other organizations put the total even higher: The Mapping Police Violence database notes more than 100 Black people killed by police since March 13.
More than likely, these deaths will usher in no legal reckoning. According to the Mapping Police Violence database, “99 percent of killings by police from 2013-2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.” It is this slow, steady drip of police killings that ultimately drives Black families, activists, and their allies to protest in the streets.
“So many people have reached out to me, telling me they’re sorry that this happened to my family,” Letetra Wideman, Jacob Blake’s sister, said during a press conference last week. “Well, don’t be sorry. Because this has been happening to my family for a long time. Longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till. Emmett Till is my family. Philando, Mike Brown. Sandra. This has been happening to my family. And I’ve shed tears for every single one of these people that it’s happened to. This is nothing new. I’m not sad. I’m not sorry. I’m angry. And I’m tired.”
Independent of the news cycle, Black people are disproportionately killed by the police
According to the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer for creating the first nationwide tracker of police killings, “the rate at which Black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.”
Yes, more white Americans are killed by police in total each year, but Black Americans, who make up less than 13 percent of the US population, represent 24 percent of those shot and killed by police, according to the Post’s database.
Additionally, the Post notes that the number of people the police kill annually holds steady.
“Police nationwide have shot and killed almost the same number of people annually — nearly 1,000 — since The Post began its project,” the Fatal Force project reads. “Probability theory may offer an explanation. It holds that the quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major societal changes, such as a fundamental shift in police culture or extreme restrictions on gun ownership.”
In other words, the high probability of steady and disproportionate Black death is why racial justice activists have to take to the streets to fight for major societal changes: to break the cycle. For example, the Movement for Black Lives-sponsored legislation like the Breathe Act aims to solve problems like excessive policing and insufficient social welfare programs in Black communities. And in addition to issues like the ubiquity of guns and violent police culture, scholars also note racialized poverty as a driver of disparities in police killings.
Inequality exacerbates racialized police killings but doesn’t explain the gap entirely
According to a 2020 analysis by the People’s Policy Project based on census poverty data and the Fatal Encounters police killing database, across all races, the higher the poverty rate of the neighborhood, the higher the police killing rate in the community. NYU School of Medicine’s Justin Feldman, lead researcher on the project, found that “rates of police killings increase in tandem with census tract poverty for the overall population, and within the white, Black, and Latino populations.”
“For the overall population, the rate of police killings increased as census tract poverty increased,” Feldman’s report found. For the poorest Americans, there were 6.4 police killings per million, compared with 1.8 per million for the richest Americans. That means you are three times more likely to be killed by police if you are poor than if you are rich.
This trend is particularly disturbing once you account for the racial stratification of American poverty. While a plurality of white Americans live in the country’s least-poor neighborhoods, a plurality of Black Americans live in the country’s poorest neighborhoods, exposing them to a heightened threat of police fatalities.
Black people in poor neighborhoods had the highest rate of killings by police of any demographic measured in the report. At 12.3 per million, it is nearly double the national rate for police killings in the highest poverty neighborhoods.
Yet even after accounting for racial economic stratification, the study estimates that Black Americans’ disproportionate poverty only accounts for about 30 percent of the disparity in police deaths, with researchers suggesting that race-based discrimination likely fuels much of the gap.
In total, the combination of omnipresent guns, the racial nature of American poverty, the violent culture of policing, and the persistence of anti-Black racism form a system that produces deaths like those of Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Rayshard Brooks, and many others. Barring a massive policy shift, the racialized police killings and the unrest they spur will likely continue unabated.