Five Facts About Police Killings and Race

Ferguson Outrage in Context

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The absence of any kind of systematic tracking of police killings in the U.S. makes it difficult to see and understand any patterns that might exist among them, but fortunately, some researchers have undertaken efforts to do so. While the data they have collected is limited, it is national in scope and consistent from place to place, and thus very useful for illuminating trends. Let's take a look at what the data collected by Fatal Encounters and by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement show us about police killings and race.

Police are Killing Black People at Far Greater Rates than Any Other Race

Fatal Encounters is an ever-growing crowd-sourced database of police killings in the US compiled by D. Brian Burghart. To date, Burghart has amassed a database of 2,808 incidents from across the nation. I downloaded this data and calculated percentages of those killed by race. Though the race of those killed is currently unknown in nearly a third of the incidents, of those in which race is known, nearly a quarter are black, nearly a third are white, about 11 percent are Hispanic or Latino, and just 1.45 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander. While there are more white than black people in this data, the percentage of those who are black far out-paces the percentage of those who are black in the general population — 24 percent versus 13 percent. Meanwhile, white people compose about 78 percent of our national population, but just under 32 percent of those killed.

This means that black people are more likely to be killed by police, while white, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American are less likely.

This trend is corroborated by other research. A study conducted by Colorlines and The Chicago Reporter in 2007 found that black people were over-represented among those killed by police in every city investigated, but especially in New York, Las Vegas, and San Diego, where the rate was at least double their share of the local population.

This report also found that the number of Latinos killed by police is rising.

Another report by the NAACP focused on Oakland, California found that 82 percent of people shot by police between 2004 and 2008 were black, and none were white. New York City's 2011 Annual Firearms Discharge Report shows that police shot more black people than white or Hispanic people between 2000 and 2011.

All of this amounts to a black person being killed by police, security guards or armed civilians in an "extra-judicial" manner every 28 hours, based on data for 2012 compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). The largest proportion of those people are young black men between the ages of 22 and 31 years old.

Most Black People Killed by Police, Security Guards or Vigilantes are Unarmed

Per the MXGM report, the vast majority of those killed during 2012 were unarmed at the time. Forty-four percent had no weapon on them, while 27 percent were "allegedly" armed, but there was no documentation in the police report that supported presence of a weapon. Just 27 percent of those killed possessed a weapon, or a toy weapon mistaken for a real one, and only 13 percent had been identified as an active or suspected shooter prior to their death.

The NAACP report from Oakland similarly found that no weapons were present in 40 percent of cases in which people were shot by police.

"Suspicious Behavior" is the Leading Precipitating Factor in these Cases

The MXGM study of 313 black people killed by police, security guards and vigilantes in 2012 found that 43 percent of killings were prompted by vaguely defined "suspicious behavior." Equally troubling, about 20 percent of these incidents were precipitated by a family member calling 911 to seek emergency psychiatric care for the deceased. Just a quarter were facilitated by verifiable criminal activity.

Feeling Threatened is the Most Common Justification

Per the MXGM report, "I felt threatened" is the most common reason given for one of these killings, cited in nearly half of all cases. Nearly a quarter were attributed to "other allegations," including that the suspect lunged, reached toward waistband, pointed a gun, or drove toward officer.

In just 13 percent of the cases did the person killed actually fire a weapon.

Criminal Charges are Almost Never Filed in these Cases

Despite the facts stated above, the study by MXGM found that only 3 percent of the 250 officers who killed a black person in 2012 were charged with a crime. Of the 23 people charged with a crime after one of these killings, most of them were vigilantes and security guards. In most cases District Attorneys and Grand Juries rule these killings justified.