Category: Police Killings

Media Representation & Police Killings of African Americans

By Hannah Lee, Kendall Bradley, and Habib Khadri

Over the past ten years, police killings have pervaded American media, along with the ensuing riots and protests that have shaken the nation awake to police brutality in the United States. This shared experience of death among the American public has shaped the way our nation confronts the intersection of death, race, and justice. The increase in publicity around police killings, which disproportionately implicate the black community, has also led the public to consider what death communicates about life itself. In order to more closely study the impact of police killings, we will be using the lives and deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner to examine the personal intricacies, as well as the public phenomenon, of the killings of these men and boys.

However, in order to fully understand the context of the recent and widely publicized police killings, we must understand the data and evidence behind what has become a cultural movement and moment. While it seems almost a given to pair the topic of police killings with the conversation around race and racism in the United States, this link has not always been made in the American schema. Therefore, we will investigate the statistical reality surrounding police killings and their connections to race, looking at the relationships between perpetrators’ races and victims’ races. Furthermore, we will investigate the psychology behind these race relations and the neurological circumstances that the officers in question underwent during their respective confrontations.

Looking first at the entire pool of data, it was reported that 1,166 people were killed by a police officer in 2018, following the previous trend of American police officers killing approximately 1,000 civilians per year. [1] In the past five years, many research studies sought to break down the demographics of these slain civilians. As of 2018, the data said that a black individual is three times as likely to be killed by a police officer as a white individual. [2] To look at it from another angle, black individuals are dying at a rate of 7.2 per one million people due to police violence, while white individuals are dying at a rate of 2.9 people per one million.[3] Furthermore, the sheer number of years lost at the hands of officers tends to be far higher among men of color than white men, as the average man of color killed by a police officer is much younger at the time of his death. [4] In addition, 32% of black victims were unarmed when killed, while only 16% of the white victims were unarmed. [5]

The recent events of police shootings have led many groups and individuals to statistically evaluate the presence of racism in these occurrences. One measure of this phenomenon comes by examining the number of people of color’s deaths at the hands of police officers as well as understanding the circumstances under which they were killed, such as being armed versus being unarmed. Other studies have evaluated the situation scientifically by studying the psychology behind these occurrences, specifically examining the behavior of police officers. Social psychological research has pointed to the implicit bias of police officers as one cause of racial ties to police killings. [6] The high-risk situations that police officers are potentially facing in many of these cases trigger what researcher Daniel Mears defines as “fast thinking” in decision-making. [7] Decisions made from “fast thinking” are made often without conscious thought processes. Thus, personal bias, such as subconscious racial prejudice, can take hold when a police officer is deciding whether or not to shoot. Other studies also point to fatigue and fear as conditions which can exaggerate implicit racial bias by making it more difficult to slow down “fast thinking”. [8] These findings, along with several other studies, have provided evidence that racial bias is a likely cause of the disproportionate number of young black men targeted in police shootings.

While all of this data is crucial and has been painstakingly gathered, it is also important to note that data surrounding police shootings is incredibly hard to procure and compile into official data sets. Many organizations and investigators groups have undertaken data collection, but official data sets are difficult to confirm. Thus, the above information must be further contextualized by layering stories and fragments of cultural happenings on top of the statistics themselves. Understanding this data enables us to move forward with a foundation on which to comprehend and interpret the topic of police shootings in recent media and pop culture. Such information gives us a lens with which to see the works put out by artists and news outlets, knowing that there is factual evidence behind that which we can be tempted to view as subjective due to our personal and emotional associations with the topic.

Nevertheless, since the percentages, ratios, and statistics listed above could never fully quantify the gravity of human life, it is vital to examine cultural receptions of these tragic events. In the present age, media is a key means of creating, transmitting, and augmenting culture. The things depicted in national media are the things we thereby consume, and that which we consume visually and auditorily informs what we think about, talk about, and believe about the world. In short, media does not just report on the world around us, but it also drastically influences the very way we understand it. In light of this reality, it is crucial to examine music, movies, and TV shows as pieces and representations of culture.

Music is a particularly salient contributor to culture, as it is the means of media with which we simply clock the most hours. It has grown increasingly common among black rap and hip-hop artists to include allusions to police brutality in their music. In his single “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” artist YG laments that officers’ abuse of power can have devastating effects. “Y’all badge don’t mean y’all got the right to take one of my n****’s lives,” his song declares. [9] This misuse of power is the linchpin of the black music community’s commentaries; it is not only a key cause of police violence, but is also a key factor in sentencing and punishment practices. For example, officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for fatally shooting Ferguson’s 18-year-old Michael Brown. In part, this is because the law is set up in such a way that makes it difficult to charge police officers. [10] Since officers are permitted to shoot in defense of their own life or another person’s, or to prevent a suspected violent felon from getting away, [11] there is considerable room for officers to take liberties and remain protected by the law. These liberties have grieved many artists of color, including R&B artist Miguel who sings wearily, “I’m tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands/I’m tired of watching these murderers get off.”

These representations in music are critical to understanding the very birth of the Black Lives Matter movement itself, since music is a major means of connecting personal and collective identities with broader societal themes. [12] Black artists’ discussions of police brutality in their music serves to connect individual African-Americans to the re-established black community, even with many familial undertones. [13] This reality is evidenced by the familial language black artists often use in referencing black men slain by police officers; phrases like “my brothers,” “the boys,” and “our people” allude to a notion of sameness that is fundamentally shared across the black community. This level of connection is absolutely integral to a contextual understanding of American police killings. The black community has all but had to come together in order to cope with the brutal ways this issue has hit too close to home. Without media representations like rap and hip-hop songs, the American public may not have such an intimate window into the heartbreak that the black community has widely taken ownership over. Excluding media and culture from the conversation would provide only a vacuous and superficial understanding of a complex, personal issue.

That said, music isn’t the only cultural acknowledgment of police violence in the modern day. TV shows like Blue Bloods, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Scandal have also taken turns highlighting instances of police brutality in their respective programs. [14] A 2015 article in The Guardian unpacks Scandal’s depiction of a racially charged shooting, calling it “a gripping…slice of TV as timely as it was hard-hitting.” [15] This article highlights a key piece of what we expect from the media we consume: we want the ostensibly realistic media we absorb to actually reflect our daily lives. When shows that occupy realistic spaces don’t actually depict the harsh realities we know to be true in those spaces, we tend to be frustrated with the producers for their lack of courage. Shows like Scandal and the others listed provide us with the solace that we’re looking for—they show us a world that looks like ours not just nominally or superficially, but that genuinely depicts the hard pieces of life that we face each day. The fact that these shows and many others have taken the step to highlight this particular issue is culturally significant; it reveals that at least, the police brutality conversation matters to the American people and thus to those who seek to represent it, and at most, we have reached a vital crossroads where we as a culture refuse to accept anything less than 100% participation in speaking out against racial injustice. Though the reality is likely somewhere in the middle, this paradigm itself indicates some semblance of cultural progress, even if tragic cases continue to surface faster than we can properly mourn them.

Amandla Stenberg, the young actress who portrays Starr Carter in 2018’s “The Hate U Give” acknowledges these media representations herself in a Washington Post article. She says that the film seeks to be “open and candid and multidimensional” in the way it postulates blackness. [16] The movie has been acclaimed for its potent depiction of a black high school student being killed by a white police officer, particularly because of the incisive insights Starr provides throughout the film. To her white boyfriend’s claim that he “doesn’t see color,” Starr replies, “then you don’t see me.” [17] This concise and yet poignant remark further underscores the necessity of only engaging in the police violence conversation through a lens of race. A lens of race is the reality, so to explore the topic through anything less is a disservice. The Hate U Give’s cultural significance extends beyond depicting a narrative that we have recently seen in news media; it deeply and inextricably links race to conversations around police brutality by providing an in-depth analysis of Khalil’s death. The gravity of this link cannot be lost on us.

In sum, media representations of police brutality have grown integral to our culture. Though elevating black voices in this conversation is valuable, the fact remains that representations differ hugely depending on who authors them and for whom they create this content. Thus, it is vital to also investigate the ethical angle of this topic to round out our understanding of police violence in American media.

Pervasive police killings of black Americans undoubtedly stem from the continued racial tensions rooted in socioeconomic inequality between members of the black and white communities. For this reason, various ethical considerations arise from this tension, and individuals begin to scrutinize not only the conditions that justify police force, but the true intentions of police officers involved. Both of these considerations are intertwined under an overarching question: how do we establish a balance that ensures both police safety and the preservation of the well-being of disadvantaged community members, specifically members of minority communities? As this issue gains popularity, it is the media portrayal of this conflict that allows individuals to receive insight on the specifics concerning cases of police brutality that ultimately lead to the death of community members.

In 2014, the death of Eric Garner stirred various communities around the United States and became a viral example of police brutality against African-American communities. This became the forefront of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. [18] The copious amount of media coverage of the case was imperative in publicizing and popularizing the movement as a whole. Celebrities around the world and specifically athletes in the NBA voiced their opinions on the matter with t-shirts that contained the message, “I can’t breathe,” which were the last words of Eric Garner. These actions by influencers instigated the conversation regarding the relationship between race and police brutality between everyday people and individuals who typically don’t involve themselves in conversations around racially motivated disparities. An ethical concern that arose out of this particular statement was that the “I can’t breathe” statement would devolve into a fashion statement and that meanwhile, the true issues associated with the Eric Garner case would be lost. [19] Americans saw a growing supply of merchandise associated with Eric Garner that was initially released to spread awareness, but later became simply a fashion statement. Activists were concerned that the message behind the merchandise would be lost in our consumerist society, and that with the continued cycle of police brutality, we would only grow more desensitized to the gravity of these killings through these initially positive acts by influencers.

The Black Lives Matter movement is also concerned with racially biased police officers possessing weapons and using them in situations where it is unnecessary. [20] Cases like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin provide invoke a conversation surrounding gun control amongst police officers. If officers are not meant to be sovereign citizens, why are they able to carry weapons and direct them at civilians with minimal repercussions? [21] It also places a responsibility upon officials to determine the intent of these police officers during the high-intensity situations they are placed in. It is very difficult to empathize with officers during situations where emotions are running high, and determining what is classified as excessive force can only truly be determined by individuals at the scene. Ethical concerns associated with exploring this potential option would prove to place officers at a disadvantage in these situations and lead to them fearing their lives even more. [22]

When tragic police killings occur in our communities, the impact rapidly spreads throughout our society due to the efficiency of our enhanced news networks. [23] The families of the individuals involved in the killings are of course affected, but so are the millions of people who turn on their TVs or open up Twitter on their phones to learn about the issue. While it is beneficial to our society for communities to be informed of issues that affect them, a major downfall of the rapid spread of news is the bias and ethical concerns that the media catalyzes. Due to the buzz regarding the killings, many people might breach ethical courtesies and try to profit from merchandise or coverage to publicize the event, rather than respectfully commemorating those lost. Furthermore, the bias in the media prevents the true intentions of the officers involved from being revealed, painting them in either an undeserved positive light or an equally undeserved negative light. Both of these ethical concerns, the commercialization of victims and the uncertainty of officer intention, threaten the preservation of police safety and marginalized communities.

In conclusion, the rise of both racially charged police brutality and media representations thereof in the United States have forced Americans to grapple with one chilling question: does our nation truly believe that black lives matter? By examining the lives, deaths, and legacies of several black men in recent history, we have been able to see some positive media coverage and some potentially problematic trends that linger. Above all, of course, we still face a tragic cycle of police violence that has devastating effects on individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. By engaging with the media around us thoughtfully, we can begin to form a view on police killings that is informed by scientific, cultural, and ethical realities, and we can thereby continue to affect positive change in our respective spheres of influence.


[1]Nibras, Nadir. “US Police Killings: What the Data Tells Us.” Towards Data Science. December 04, 2018. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[2]”Mapping Police Violence.” Mapping Police Violence. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[3]”The Lives of People of Color Are More Likely to Be Cut Short by Police.” Accessed April 09, 2019.


[5]”Mapping Police Violence.”

[6]Mears, Daniel P., Miltonette O. Craig, Eric A. Stewart, and Patricia Y. Warren. “Thinking Fast, Not Slow: How Cognitive Biases May Contribute to Racial Disparities in the Use of Force in Police-citizen Encounters.” Journal of Criminal Justice53 (2017): 12-24. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2017.09.001.


[8]Correll, Joshua, Sean M. Hudson, Steffanie Guillermo, and Debbie S. Ma. “The Police Officers Dilemma: A Decade of Research on Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass8, no. 5 (2014): 201-13. doi:10.1111/spc3.12099.

[9]”YG – Police Get Away Wit Murder.” Genius. June 14, 2016. Accessed April 01, 2019.

[10]Lind, Dara. “Why Darren Wilson Wasn’t Charged for Killing Michael Brown.” Vox. November 25, 2014. Accessed April 06, 2019.


[12]”Political Rap: The Music of Oppositional Resistance.” Taylor & Francis. Accessed April 03, 2019.


[14]”12 Shows That Tackled Police Brutality on Prime Time TV.” The Community for Black Creativity and News. Accessed April 04, 2019.

[15]Ferguson, LaToya. “Scandal’s Police Brutality Episode Was TV Wish Fulfillment Writ Large.” The Guardian. March 06, 2015. Accessed April 02, 2019.

[16]CBS News. “Common and Amandla Stenberg on Tackling the Nuances of “blackness” in “The Hate U Give”.” CBS News. October 05, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2019.

[17]”The Hate U Give.” IMDb. October 19, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019.

[18]Video, TIME. “Know Right Now: NBA Stars Protest The Eric Garner Decision.” Time. December 10, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[19]Littlefield, Bill. “‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protests Reach Pro Sports.” ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Protests Reach Pro Sports | Only A Game. December 13, 2014. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[20]Koebler, Jason. “The Legal and Ethical Ramifications of Letting Police Kill Suspects With Robots.” Motherboard. July 09, 2016. Accessed April 05, 2019.

[21]Morgan, J. Tom. “Opinion: In Police Shootings: Legality, Morality and Ethics Are Not the Same.” Ajc. September 21, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2019.

[22]”Is the Media to Blame for Police Brutality?” The Prindle Post. April 17, 2018. Accessed April 05, 2019.


Racial Disparities in US Police Killings

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.


[2] Kemp, David, and Chris Skelton. N/A. “ Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).” Justia. Justia. N/A.


[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.


[5] Mock, Brentin. “The New Explanation for Racially Disparate Police Violence.” CityLab. Last modified February 15, 2018.


[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.


[7] Burton III, James. “Harvard Researcher Says Children Learn Racism Quickly – The Boston Globe.” Last modified June 10, 2012.


[8] Abrams , Allison. 2017. “The Psychology Behind Racism .” Psychology Today. Psychology Today. September 6, 2017.


[9] Mann, Coramae Richey. Unequal Justice a Question of Color. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press , 1994.


[10] Jones, James M. “Killing Fields: Explaining Police Violence Against Persons of Color.” UNC Chapel Hill Libraries. Accessed April 05, 2019.


[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.


[12] Lopez, German. 2016. “What Were the 2014 Ferguson Protests About?” Vox. January 27, 2016.


[13] Lopez, German. 2015. “This Chart Explains Why Black People Fear Being Killed by the Police.” Vox. July 29, 2015.


[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. .

[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.


[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.


[17] Elliott, Kevin, and Joycelyn Pollock. 2014. “The Ethics of Force.” In Law Enforcement Ethics, 231–56. Sage Publications.


[18] McCarthy, Ciara, and Nadja Popovich. 2018. “California Police Killings Database Reveals ‘Clear Racial Disparities.’” The Guardian, September 2018.


[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.


Delaney Keith, Breanna Fowler, and Jorell Jimenez

The Impact of Police Killings on the Mental Health of African American Males

Police are legally authorized to use non-negotiable force in order to protect our community as they are provided with batons, tasers, as well as lethal weapons for both protection and defense. In recent decades, many police departments have taken advantage of these lethal weapons for increased personal protection. The majority of police departments spend a considerable amount of money to train their officers on proper police defense tactics, “do not shoot” scenarios, and how and when to safely deploy weapons. This training is an important criterion for a department to obtain accreditation from the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA) [1].

Did you know, if a police officer has to draw and fire his or her weapon, the officer is trained to fire at the upper torso or head to damage the central nervous system or other vital organs to terminate any suspected lethal threat from an individual? Officers are taught that shooting a suspect in the arm or leg is not an acceptable use of lethal force, especially if the suspect can return fire and potentially kill the police officers or another person [2]. This can lead to higher risk of potential death of an unarmed suspect as the officer is forced to act based on assumption.

The presence of video recordings by bystanders has captured the use and misuse of lethal force by police officers against African Americans which has severely threatened the black community’s faith in law enforcement [3]. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was formed in 2013 when an African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed due to gun violence. It became a nationally recognized movement in 2014 following street protests after the firearm deaths of two African American males, Michael of Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner of New York City [4].

BLM is a chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes [5]. The group has now formed 23 chapters located in the United States, Guam, and Canada [6].

On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer. His death was the result of a police encounter that followed his participation in a convenient store robbery. Brown had stolen two packs of cigarillos using his size and physical force to intimidate the store clerk. Moments later Officer Darren Wilson approached Brown and his friend, as they fit the description of those involved in a theft nearby. The officer questioned Brown about the theft which then led to a shooting altercation. Immediately after the shooting, crowds began to form around the crime to protest the shooting of Michael Brown. The St. Louis County Police Chief later informed the community that Brown was unarmed [7].

Police officers and other law enforcers have been found to exhibit universal implicit bias against racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. The use of more force and violence towards African Americans compared to that of whites exhibits racial profiling of “a significant number of the population” [8]. Some white officers have been taught, informally or formally, that African Americans are more likely to be more aggressively involved in criminal activities, which is why some may be prone to discriminate against African American males [9].

Implicit bias, which involves underlying bias and stereotypes that influence actions, seem to play a large role in the shootings. Police often do not realize that this bias is affecting them as shootings seem to be overlooked by many, because they are unfortunately becoming more common. The fact that they have been trained to assume a higher level of threat associated with African American males gives the misconception that their actions seem justifiable. There is evidence that implicit bias has contributed to negative impacts on mental health as a consequence of police shootings associated with African Americans. The threat of getting shot or potentially killed by police induces a sense of fear and panic, which leads to African Americans lacking a sense of safety or belonging in their own neighborhoods. Not only does this threat impact their mental health, but the shootings of unarmed African Americans may lead to a sense of lower social status, or even a decrease in self worth as experienced by their predecessors [10].

Besides these self-deprecating influences, police brutality can also lead to detrimental effects such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Effects of PTSD include “intense, disturbing thoughts,” which may lead to fear of encounters with police officers based upon previous negative experiences. This may cause African American males to be less likely to contact the police in times of distress due to the mistrust and anger brought on by the history and reputation of these encounters[11].

A study, carried out to understand the impacts that police shootings have, involved cross-referencing police killings that occurred in the same state as government health survey. Nearly 100,000 African Americans, who were exposed to shootings of their own people, were shown to have 1.7 more days of low mental health per year. The same study also analyzed responses from white Americans regarding how they assessed their own mental health. There was a stark difference in results. White Americans reported their mental health as relatively unaffected whenever police killings would occur. Even if there was no relation between the victim of the shooting and the African Americans surveyed, there was still a decline in their mental health. This is not to say that white Americans were not affected, it merely states that the effect on white Americans was not extreme enough to cause significant impacts. On the other hand, African Americans, had “reactions of anger, activation of prior traumas and communal bereavement.” This shows that structural racism, in the form of police shootings, can vicariously threaten the entire African American community. The study also helped clear the misconception that police killings only affect those closely involved in the shooting such as friends and family members[12].

Another study, carried out using the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, included African Americans above the age 18. They were asked to think about their mental health “which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions,” and were asked to assess “how many days during the past 30 days was [their] mental health not good?” The response rate for this group of individuals was much higher than other groups. These respondents also reported that they experienced around 4 days of poor mental health on a monthly basis.


This figure compares the mental health of white Americans to black Americans. Black Americans display a higher change in poor mental health days as a result from exposure to police killings compared to the change displayed by white Americans [13].

A study done with 103,710 African Americans, half of which were exposed to a police shooting, showed that each police killing witnessed led to a 0.14-day increase of poor mental health. The study was done to show the effects on mental health of African Americans with exposure to police killings as compared to an African American not exposed to these events. “Exposure to one or more police killings within a three-month period was associated with a 0.35-day increase in poor mental health days,” emphasizing the idea that exposure to police killings is associated with a negative flux in mental health. Studies were done on an individual level, in order to understand the impact on the mind of each individual [14].

Contrary to popular belief, this inequity has many consequences including various health effects. Due to stress and fear among the African American population caused by the actions of police officers associated with implicit biases, African Americans are at higher risk of long term effects such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity as compared to any other group. This is because certain stressors may lead to poor lifestyle choices, which can negatively impact the overall wellbeing of this particular group [15].

Not only is the mental health of African Americans influenced, but white police officers are exposed to fear induced by these troubling encounters. If this fear is justifiable for deadly force by police officers, then it is not difficult see how these unarmed victims of police shootings could be perceived as “threats,” regardless of whether they showed having aggressive behavior [16]. This constitutes the use of ‘justified homicide’ which is a common self-defense mechanism utilized when police are faced with what they interpret to be a life or death situation.

The concept of ‘justified homicide’ is a debatable subject between officers and unarmed African American victims concerning excessive police force used in self-defense mechanisms. According to FBI statistics, African Americans represented 31% of all shooting victims by the police in 2014. Also, because police departments are not required to report police involved homicide, only 50% out of the 14,800 police agencies report these incidents [17]. This calls to question certain morals as the insurance of racial and criminal justice can be easily overlooked when legal harm is used to suppress an individual. Similarly, because there is no formal way to indicate that homicidal death is caused by legal intervention in autopsy reports, data is often misconstrued to lessen the representation of racial bias in police killings. This opens a window for structural racism, as African Americans are subject to higher rates of discrimination. As previously stated, some police officers are “taught that African Americans are more likely to be violent,” allowing a degree of prejudice to exist as officers have preconceived notions and assumptions about African Americans in general [18]. This creates an inaccurate representation of the racial disparities between white and African American victims of police violence. A lack of accuracy in data representation of police killings among African Americans has prompted independent groups, such as the Washington Post, to collect their own data on victims of fatal police shootings. These data sets are by maintained and updated through the process of “searching local news reports, law enforcement websites, social media, and by monitoring independent databases” [19]. Figure 1 provides a visual representation of firearm deaths of African Americans based off reports provided by law enforcement officials. The homicide category accounts for 81% of deaths, whereas the legal intervention category only accounts for 1.5% of the deaths. This exemplifies a clear misrepresentation of data as well as a failure of the Department of Justice to accurately report the use of legal force by police.

The use of legal force on African American men instills fear and anger, creating a negative connotation surrounding police officers as they have endured centuries of violence and oppression by their white counterparts. Certain stressors such as the disparity in the killings of whites vs. African Americans by police officers have negatively impacted the overall quality of mental health in the black community [20]. The idea of John Henryism comes into play as it implies that “black men experience chronic stressors shaped by poverty and discrimination.” When these stressors are paired with a general fear of law enforcement, it is no surprise that a sense of resentment is fostered against white police officers. One study has recently concluded that African American males are “21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white males,” alluding to the fact that there is a major flaw in our justice system [21].

Legal force has also cultivated the presence of structural racism in our country’s law enforcement agency. The disproportionate search and seizure as well as mass incarceration of African Americans in comparison to whites emphasizes the idea of structural racism in our society which creates “systematic disadvantages among people of color” [22]. Structural racism, or institutionalized racism, can be defined as “the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color” [23]. These advantages are not limited to the criminal justice system, but also include elements of healthcare, occupation, economic status, and other numerous factors that put African Americans in a position that often results in indirect mistreatment as racial inequity becomes an institutional norm. Though there are other forms of structural racism, this ideology is heavily manifested in criminal justice as white police officers have implicit biases against those of color which triggers physical and mental responses that often threaten the well-being of African Americans.

In order to counteract the racial disparity in these police killings, it is suggested that new methods of training be implemented in order to lessen the divide between the African American community and white police officers. Several policies have been proposed to train new police officers of the present and worsening racial prejudice that exists in the law enforcement system. Similarly, new officers should be trained to view each perpetrator with equal levels of threat. The growing disparity between the criminal justice of whites and African Americans has constituted a larger problem that has created a negative flux in the mental health of African Americans as they not only feel inferior, but also feel they are at higher risk for police brutality.

Kalayah Evans

Anna Eskew

Owais Kamdar

[1] Perry Lyle and Ashraf M. Esmail, “Sworn to Protect: Police Brutality – a Dilemma for America’s Police,” Race, Gender & Class; New Orleans 23, no. 3/4 (2016): 155–85.

[2] James H. Price and Erica Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force: Justifiable Homicide or Potential Discrimination?,” Journal of African American Studies; New York 21, no. 4 (December 2017): 674–83,

[3] Robert Bernasconi, “When Police Violence Is More Than Violent Policing,” CR: The New Centennial Review 14, no. 2 (July 18, 2014): 145–52.

[4] Price and Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force.”

[5] “Black Lives Matter | About,” accessed April 8, 2019,

[6] Jennifer Jee-Lyn García and Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 8 (June 11, 2015): e27–30,

[7] Lyle and Esmail, “Sworn to Protect.”

[8] Bernasconi, “When Police Violence Is More Than Violent Policing.”

[9] Price and Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force”; Alicia D. Simmons, “WHOSE LIVES MATTER?: The National Newsworthiness of Police Killing Unarmed Blacks,” Du Bois Review; Cambridge 14, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 639–63,

[10] Mark Moran, “Study Exposes Mental Health Effects of Police Shootings on Black Communities,” Psychiatrics News, July 31, 2018,

[11] “What Is PTSD?,” accessed April 8, 2019,

[12] Erin B. Logan, “This Is How Police Killings Affect Black Mental Health,” Washington Post – Blogs; Washington, July 10, 2018,

[13] Jacob Bor et al., “Police Killings and Their Spillover Effects on the Mental Health of Black Americans: A Population-Based, Quasi-Experimental Study,” The Lancet 392, no. 10144 (July 28, 2018): 302–10,

[14] Moran, “Study Exposes Mental Health Effects of Police Shootings on Black Communities.”

[15] Monique Hill French, “Police Brutality Is a Threat to Public Health,” Recorder; Indianapolis, Ind., August 5, 2016, sec. To Your Health.

[16] Michael Brooks et al., “Is There a Problem Officer? Exploring the Lived Experience of Black Men and Their Relationship with Law Enforcement,” Journal of African American Studies; New York 20, no. 3–4 (December 2016): 346–62,

[17] Lyle and Esmail, “Sworn to Protect.”

[18] Price and Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force.”

[19] Price and Payton.

[20] Rachel R. Hardeman, Eduardo M. Medina, and Katy B. Kozhimannil, “Structural Racism and Supporting Black Lives — The Role of Health Professionals,” The New England Journal of Medicine; Boston 375, no. 22 (December 1, 2016): 2113–15,

[21] Keon L. Gilbert and Rashawn Ray, “Why Police Kill Black Males with Impunity: Applying Public Health Critical Race Praxis (PHCRP) to Address the Determinants of Policing Behaviors and ‘Justifiable’ Homicides in the USA,” Journal of Urban Health 93, no. 1 (April 1, 2016): 122–40,

[22] Jee-Lyn García and Sharif, “Black Lives Matter.”

[23] “Definitions of Racism.Pdf,” accessed April 8, 2019,


© 2020 Death & Dying III

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑