Several years ago, I found myself questioning the validity of news accounts that suggested that white police officers were choosing to exercise lethal force when interacting with black male suspects. After locating reliable sources for police killing data, my colleagues and I began collecting and processing data for 2014 and 2015.
Based on analysis of every use of deadly force by police officers across the United States, we can confirm that the killing of black suspects is definitely a police problem.
That is, we found that African Americans are killed by police more than twice as often as we would expect, all else being equal, given their share in the general population. While only about 12% of the American population is black, 28% of people killed by police during this two-year period were black. We also found that Latinos were killed slightly more than would be expected and white citizens less often.
But is it a white police problem?
High-profile killings of unarmed black men in the last few years — like that of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement — have led many to speculate that white police officers may target nonwhite suspects with lethal force. And that many are unarmed.
Our research found that white police officers actually kill black and other minority suspects at lower rates than would be expected if the killings were randomly distributed among officers of all races.
In addition, we learned that fewer than 1% of victims of police killings were unarmed. Across all racial groups, 65.3% of those killed possessed a firearm at the time of their death. The gun could be in their car, or on them, but it was there at the time they were killed.
While there may be some bad apples in police departments, white officers are no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers.
This doesn’t mean the killings aren’t racist; it simply means they require a different set of remedies if we are to change the culture and stop them from happening.
For me, the research suggests that the disproportionate killing of black men occurs because institutional and organizational racism in police departments and the criminal justice system targets minority communities with policies — like stop and frisk, investigatory stops, racial profiling and the war on drugs — that have more destructive effects.
Today, we have politicians who are arguing for tougher stances on immigration. These things have a way of trickling down to other things like tougher sentences on crime and policies that have a disparate impact on minority communities.
For starters, the U.S. Department of Justice needs to enforce the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which requires police organizations to report data on police killings. This data will allow researchers to thoroughly investigate each case and determine if other variables are driving police behavior.
In addition, police departments need to bring in external reviewers to examine all of their institutional practices including hiring, promotions and training.
There is definitely a problem: People of one background are being killed by police at much higher rates than other populations. We must fix it.
Menifield is a professor and dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark.