Black people are much more likely to be shot by police than their white peers.
An analysis of the available FBI data by Dara Lind for Vox found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete because it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
The disparities appear to be even starker for unarmed suspects, according to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian. Racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population in the US and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.
These disparities in police use of force reflect more widespread racial inequities across the entire American criminal justice system. Black people are much more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they’re not more likely to use or sell them. And black inmates make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population.
Some of these disparities are explained by socioeconomic factors — such as poverty, unemployment, segregation, and neglect by the police when it comes to serious crimes — that lead to more crime and violence in black communities. As a result, police tend to be more present in black neighborhoods — and therefore may be more likely to take policing actions, from traffic stops to arrests to shootings, in these areas.
But a review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that throughout various time periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons. This means that up to 39 percent of the racially disparate rate of imprisonment is attributable to other factors, including, potentially, racial bias or past criminal records influencing a prison sentence.
Another study, from 2015, by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests that, again, other factors are involved in the disparities seen for these shootings.
One of those potential factors: individual cops’ racial bias. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
The racial disparities have fueled criticisms of law enforcement over the past few years, culminating in the Black Lives Matter movement that has risen to national prominence due to the controversial police killings of Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among others. For critics, the disparities and high-profile killings have fostered concerns that black lives matter less to police, and that the next victim of a police shooting could be just about any black American.