Racial Disparities in the US: Police Killings

Out of all homicides by firearm worldwide, 82% of them occur in the United States. Within the United States, 59% of those killed by firearms are black, even though black Americans only comprise 14% of the U.S. population[1]. A Supreme Court case in 1985, Tennessee v. Garner, notes that a police officer may use deadly force on a fleeing suspect if they are believed to be posing a significant threat of physical harm and/or death to the officers involved or others[2]. This leaves the decision to act in a utilitarian way, or making a choice that yields the greatest good for the greatest amount of people[3], up to enforcement officers themselves, and allows them to define when deadly use of force should be used.

There has been a staggering rise in the amount of unarmed black Americans that have been victims of encounters with the law. Between 2015 and 2017, black Americans attributed the most to the amount of unarmed people killed by officers[4]. The disparity between the races was largest in 2015, with 14.67% of unarmed victims being black, with only 6.04% being white. Hispanics were 11.05% of victims, totaling 25.72% between black and Hispanics in 2015. These numbers show a growing issue within racial crimes, with arguments posed to ties of racism and prejudice within the police force.

Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health collected data to determine if racism plays a part in the racial disparities found in police killings. They scored each state based of off five different indexes: racial segregation, incarceration rate gaps, educational attainment gaps, the economic disparity index, and employment disparity gaps[5]. They looked to see if the states score correlated with a high per capita rate of black unarmed victims, and found that this “structural racism” correlates with higher levels of police killings by an average of a 10 point increase in score correlating to a 24% increase between unarmed black and unarmed white victims of police shootings. Two theories were also used as a controlled effect when it came to the study: the threat hypothesis, “which reflects the influence of racism on police interactions with African Americans” and the community violence hypothesis, “which supposes that higher rates of violent crime in black neighborhoods might explain higher rates of police shootings of African Americans”. Lead researcher Michael Siegel states that while both contribute, they do not fully explain the disparities. The study showed that there was a significant indication in tying structural racism with police shootings of unarmed black suspects.

If there is a link between racism and police incidents, then there must be a link to one’s own childhood experiences and racism. Many studies have shown that racism is not inherited, rather it is a learned behavior. Researcher Mahzarin Banaji conducted a study where 263 children (3 to 14) were shown pictures of faces, and found that white children thought that black and Asian faces looked angry and the white faces looked happy, while black children showed no disposition to either[6]. Banaji also states that children tend to grasp the concept quickly and exhibit biases similar to adults, but around 10 the child’s environment has a greater influence on the child’s prejudice[7]. The environment can either decrease the child’s prejudice, or have the adverse effect. Studies show that people who grew up in more integrated, multicultural areas were more likely to be invested in the well-being of those groups, but the increase of racial segregation limits this potential[8]. Some people also attribute this to feelings of fear, a need to belong, emotional incompetence, and projection.  Many psychological and environmental factors attribute to the inherent racism that permeates through the US. Data shows and supports the idea that structural racism does play a part in contributing in the racial disparities of police killings.

The culture of the United States can be portrayed through actions of our police officers. A number of studies describe the rudeness, insults, lack of understanding, posturing, and brutality that police officers exhibit toward black bodies and other minorities. A police officer has the right to question and search any individual who he considers suspicious. Race has a big impact on the police officer’s choice to question an individual or not. For example, in an examination of how race relates to the decision to detain a suspect, it is evident that race appears to be the sole factor sustaining detention; minority members are questioned because they are somewhere they do not belong; Hispanic or Asian ethnicity is used to identify an illegal alien; in drug courier profiles, race is the most probable factor; and police officers believe that minority race indicates the likelihood of committing crime[9]. Complaints by minorities entail that police officers use “derogatory name calling, discourtesy, harassment, brutality, choke holds, and lethal force”. Our law enforcement programs offer an insight into our prejudice society.

Racial Disparities: US Police Killings

Historic rates of fatal police shootings in Europe suggest that American police are 18 times more lethal than Danish police and 100 times more lethal than Finnish police[10]. American police also killed civilians more frequently than police in European countries. There are four main reasons that could possibly lead to this difference. First, U.S. gun culture and the uncertainty about whether the suspect is carrying a gun could account for many of the killings, as well as racism[11]. The third reason could be that American policing is local, meaning municipal and county police departments are responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline, and training officers, so departments may not perform these tasks well enough. In Europe, police forces are provincial, regional, or national which enables a more uniform set of codes and standards to be enforced. The fourth possible reason is the different standards. The European Convention on Human Rights is the standard that police forces operate by, meaning the nations are allowed to use “deadly force” only when it is absolutely necessary to achieve a lawful purpose.

High-profile cases have brought forth racial disparities within the criminal justice system and more specifically, racial disparities among police killings in the United States. Michael Brown was an unarmed, 18-year-old black man with no criminal record and shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014[12]. According to an analysis of FBI data optionally submitted by state departments, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012[13]. As statistics continue to publicly expose disparities in the justice system, many question the ethicality of the use of force by police officers in the United States. This force is often deadly and presents a greater risks for individuals who are racial minorities. For example, Darren Wilson, the white police officer that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, would not have been free of charge in Europe because he “thought” that Brown had a gun. Edwards, Esposito, and Lee conducted a research analysis on police-involved fatalities and found that relative to white men, the risk for police-involved death was between 3.2 and 3.5 times higher for black men and between 1.4 and 1.7 times higher for Latino men[14]. Likewise, they found that the risk is larger than originally thought in smaller metropolitan areas[15].

Various Protests

However, despite the differing number of police killings, European countries have many of the same motivations and biases that Americans do. For example, Mitch Henriquez, an Aruban man on vacation in the Netherlands, was killed as a result of intense police violence. He was arrested when an officer claimed he had a weapon, however he resisted and the police officers had to use force. Footage showed that he was choked and unconscious when he was dragged into the police station, where his cause of death was strangulation. Reports showed that what Dutch enforcement officers categorize as “suspicious behavior” is strongly correlated with specific ethnic characteristics. Police officers consider young men with dark skin as especially “suspicious”. Negative stereotyping by police is clearly a cross-cultural issue. An investigation by The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom found that more than 3,000 police officers in the UK are under investigation for assault and majority of the complainants were racial minorities. In London, Black and Asian people account for a third of the population but over 50% of the brutality victims. In conclusion, there are fewer lethal use-of-force incidents in Europe directed at racial minorities, however the stereotyping attitudes are still prevalent.

Nationally, police academies spend an average of 58 hours on firearm training but only 8 hours on de-escalation or crisis intervention[16]. While states vary in regards to police officer training, the majority have a scant amount of hours dedicated to ethics. For example, California’s basic enforcement training totals 664 hours, and only eight are allotted for ethics[17]. Additionally, only 16 out of those nearly 700 hours are spent on cultural diversity. This may present issues as many officers resort to use of force in controlling deviant behaviors of others due to the large focus on physical training in many programs. Statistics show that the training programs in California alone lack an appropriate amount of training in ethics and cultural diversity, as 19% of homicides committed by law enforcement officers out of almost 1,000 deaths between 2005 and 2014 were African American men, evidencing clear racial disparities within the system[18]. The law enforcement attributed death rate for black men was 3.4, with the rates for Hispanics being 1.2, and whites being .7. The Police Executive Research Forum highlights the need for different training as well as different policing culture in their report “30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force”. The report explains that police culture emphasizes a “command and control” approach to every situation, which is likely to endanger lives.

Overall, police violence towards racial minorities is a cross-cultural issue. High numbers of police killings are also a problem in South America. Over the course of the 1990s, the police in the state of São Paulo, Brazil killed more than seven hundred people[19]. In some years, the police killed about one person every six hours. In Salvador de Bahia the per capita rate of police killings was three times higher than rates in the worst years in São Paulo. Many other countries in South America portrayed the same results. Buenos Aires killed just as often as the police in São Paulo. There is also information that suggests that Venezuela police killed twice as often as Salvador. Police violence is an everyday occurrence, and the phenomenon seems to be growing. Conviction rates for police officers who kill are well below 5% in Brazil and about 20% in Venezuela. The response by the courts to the situation suggests that the places where the police use lethal force most indiscriminately, the justice system punishes police homicides least often.

Various states in the US are beginning to require shared information of all use-of-force data, likely in order to decrease racial disparities in police killings which is often attributed to racial bias more than legitimate deviant activity. Then Chief of Dallas police, David Brown, restructured lethal force policies. Brown required officers in his department to take refresher courses on de-escalating conflict along with sharing use-of-force data with the public[20]. Additionally, these officers were required to take an ethics course and challenged to think of how an ethical officer would react in any given situation, performing their job virtuously. After these changes within their system were made, officer-involved shootings dropped from 23 in 2012 to 13 in 2016. Furthermore, complaints against the department regarding excessive use of force dropped 74% in those four years. The positive results of Brown’s policies, if adapted by police departments across the nation, could significantly reduce racial disparities in police killings and encourage police officers to act in a way that displays beneficence, doing what is right and good for the people they protect.

Taking time, assessing the situation, and responding calmly and appropriately would be better for everyone. It also explains that we need accountability. When police unlawfully take a life, district attorneys need to file charges. Police chiefs need to provide training, guidance, and policies so that officers are trained to assess situations, de-escalate problems, and keep themselves and the public safe. Police chiefs need to remove officers who react with violence or bias which may cause irrational responses to people in crisis and people of color.


[1] Mesic, Aldina, Lydia Franklin, Alev Cansever, Fiona Potter, and Anika Sharma. 2018. “The Relationship Between Structural Racism and Black-White Disparities in Fatal Police Shootings at the State Level.” Journal of the National Medical Association 110 (2): 106–16. https://doi.org/DOI:10.1016/j.jnma.2017.12.002.


[2] Kemp, David, and Chris Skelton. N/A. “ Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).” Justia. Justia. N/A. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/471/1/.


[3] Marr, Tim. 2019. Some Basic Ethical Principles.


[4] Beer, Todd. “POLICE KILLING OF BLACKS: Data for 2015, 2016, 2017, and First Half of 2018 – Sociology Toolbox.” The Society Pages. Last modified March 1, 2018. https://thesocietypages.org/toolbox/police-killing-of-blacks/.


[5] Mock, Brentin. “The New Explanation for Racially Disparate Police Violence.” CityLab. Last modified February 15, 2018. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/02/the-role-of-structural-racism-in-police-violence/553340/.


[6] “Racism is Learned at an Early Age | Applied Social Psychology (ASP).” Sites at Penn State – WordPress | Powered by WordPress. Last modified March 25, 2017. https://sites.psu.edu/aspsy/2017/03/25/racism-is-learned-at-an-early-age/.


[7] Burton III, James. “Harvard Researcher Says Children Learn Racism Quickly – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Last modified June 10, 2012. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/06/09/harvard-researcher-says-children-learn-racism-quickly/gWuN1ZG3M40WihER2kAfdK/story.html.


[8] Abrams , Allison. 2017. “The Psychology Behind Racism .” Psychology Today. Psychology Today. September 6, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201709/the-psychology-behind-racism.


[9] Mann, Coramae Richey. Unequal Justice a Question of Color. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press , 1994. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=y4yeIueehV8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=police+killing+colored+people+varying+by+culture&ots=GDWtrSDeRl&sig=92zU2MRLZnV6VW8zUnnADVRuqeA#v=onepage&q&f=false


[10] Jones, James M. “Killing Fields: Explaining Police Violence Against Persons of Color.” UNC Chapel Hill Libraries. Accessed April 05, 2019. https://spssi-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/doi/epdf/10.1111/josi.12252


[11] Lopez, German. “American Police Shoot and Kill Far More People than Their Peers in Other Countries.” Vox. November 14, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/8/13/17938170/us-police-shootings-gun-violence-homicides


[12] Lopez, German. 2016. “What Were the 2014 Ferguson Protests About?” Vox. January 27, 2016. https://www.vox.com/2015/5/31/17937764/ferguson-missouri-protests-2014-michael-brown-police-shooting.


[13] Lopez, German. 2015. “This Chart Explains Why Black People Fear Being Killed by the Police.” Vox. July 29, 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/4/10/8382457/police-shootings-racism.


[14] Edwards, Frank, Michael Esposito, and Hedwig Lee. 2018. “Risk of Police-Involved Death by Race/Ethnicity and Place, United States, 2012–2018.” American Journal of Public Health 108 (9): 1241–48. https://doi.org/DOI:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304559 .

[15] Kramer, Rory, Brianna Remster, and Camille Z. Charles. “Black Lives and Police Tactics Matter.” Contexts Black Lives and Police Tactics Matter Comments. October 4, 2017. Accessed April 8, 2019. https://contexts.org/articles/black-lives-and-police-tactics-matter/.


[16] Mizner, Susan. “Police ‘Command and Control’ Culture Is Often Lethal – Especially for People With Disabilities.” American Civil Liberties Union. May 11, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform/reforming-police-practices/police-command-and-control-culture-often-lethal


[17] Elliott, Kevin, and Joycelyn Pollock. 2014. “The Ethics of Force.” In Law Enforcement Ethics, 231–56. Sage Publications. https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/54407_Chapter_11.pdf.


[18] McCarthy, Ciara, and Nadja Popovich. 2018. “California Police Killings Database Reveals ‘Clear Racial Disparities.’” The Guardian, September 2018. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1710090575?pq-origsite=summon.


[19] Brinks, Daniel M. The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America: Inequality and the Rule of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


[20] Smith, Sonia. 2017. “‘How Would an Ethical Officer React?’” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times. August 17, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/magazine/how-would-an-ethical-officer-react.html


Delaney Keith, Breanna Fowler, and Jorell Jimenez