How We Know Police Brutality Against Black Americans Is a Systemic Problem

These statistics and studies show the depth of racism in American police forces

Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Rarely does public opinion shift as dramatically and quickly as it has following the death of George Floyd. In just a matter of weeks, the vast majority of Americans became aware that racial discrimination in police forces is a systemic problem, not a series of isolated incidents.

Chart by Charles Franklin on Twitter

The Black Lives Matter protests have been instrumental in this profound shift in opinion. Those still unconvinced believe that the growing movement is fueled by fearmongering and media narratives that misrepresent the situation. They suspect that the unjustified killings of unarmed Black Americans are outliers, committed by a few “bad apples,” not patterns.

In reality, the actual data paint an even darker picture than some BLM supporters realize. Black neighborhoods are not just overpoliced; police shoot Black people more often even when they pose same threat as White people. Police killings are not just becoming more visible; they really are becoming more common. These scientific findings and others are critical to having informed discussions about the discrimination that plagues our nation.

1. Police shoot unarmed Black Americans at the same rate they shoot armed White Americans.

A 2015 study by Cody Ross, a social scientist at the Max Planck Institute, found that police are just as likely to shoot unarmed Black people as they are to shoot armed White people. Let that sink in for a moment. Police fire their guns when they feel threatened, whether their perception of threat is justified or not. They tend to perceive the same level of threat from an unarmed Black person as they do from an armed White person.

When police have to make split-second decisions about the level of threat they are facing, they naturally rely on instinctive stereotypes, both true and untrue. Not all stereotyping is bad; if a person appears to be in a manic episode or intoxicated, it would be fair to assume that they pose a higher threat to the officers. If they draw a gun, the officers can surely perceive a greater threat. But stereotyping on race alone is not acceptable.

The fact that officers shoot unarmed Black people just as often as they shoot armed White people indicates that something in their split-second decision-making tends to perceive Blackness to be just as threatening as a weapon.

2. Police are 3 times more likely to shoot an unarmed person when the person is Black.

The same study found that police are 2.9 times more likely to shoot unarmed Black people than they are to shoot unarmed White people. Two people can pose the exact same threat — same weapons, same aggression, same circumstances — and police are around 3 times more likely to perceive life-threatening danger from one of them just for being Black. Police also fire deadlier shots at black people. Of those shot, unarmed Black people are 3.5 times more likely to die than unarmed White people.

Of course, not all police officers stereotype unfairly. However, the findings from this study cannot be explained by just a few “bad apples” throughout the country. They are consistent and systematic. The trends also cannot be explained by a tendency for black people to commit more violent crime in the first place. The disparity in police violence exists even across different types of crime. The study found that the only explanation consistent with the evidence is that American police forces have systemic racial bias.

3. The general population exhibits the same racial bias.

Psychologists in 2002 and 2012 conducted experiments where ordinary citizens and police officers played a simple video game that was specifically designed to test their implicit racial biases. Participants were told to press “shoot” anytime they saw an armed target, and “don’t shoot” anytime they saw an unarmed target. You can play the game yourself here. When shown an armed target, both officers and civilians tended to be quicker to shoot if the target was Black, even when everything else was exactly the same. When shown an unarmed target, they tended to be quicker to decide not to shoot if the target was White, Latino, or Asian.

The disparate treatment of Black Americans is not just endemic to police forces; it comes from a culture of racial bias that plagues our society as a whole. Police encounters are just where we see this the most clearly. Law enforcement and criminal justice systems have long been the most direct channel of enforcing the racial hierarchy, using this socially constructed perception that Black people are more dangerous than White people. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two White men attempting to place him under citizens’ arrest and the outburst by a White dog owner in Central Park are prime examples of how this racial bias pervades through the rest of the population too, and that people are well aware of the hierarchy.

4. Police are almost twice as likely to kill a civilian today than they were 20 years ago.

Police encounters are certainly more visible now because of smartphones, body cams, and social media, but that’s not the only reason this issue has surfaced more in recent years. Police brutality has been steadily rising for at least the past two decades. Even adjusting for population, police killings have nearly doubled since 2000. It’s possible that we just have better data for more recent years, but police killings have still been generally rising over the last decade alone.

Deaths per million is calculated as the number of police killings in a year divided by the U.S. population in millions. Based on police killings data from Fatal Encounters and population data from the Federal Reserve.

Information on the race of the person is not available for many of these cases. As the figure below shows, the dataset is much more likely to have racial data for more recent deaths than for earlier ones. Because of this, it’s hard to say how the racial bias has changed over time.

Based on police killings data from Fatal Encounters and racial population data from the CDC.

Still, this chart reveals a clear trend: as more racial data become available, the percentage of killed civilians who were black increases. As less racial data become available, it decreases. This suggests that the numbers from around 2013 to 2018 — the period with the most complete data and the highest racial disparities — are still underestimating the inequality.

5. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White men.

Researchers in 2019 filled in the missing racial data from 2013 to 2018 using an algorithm that predicts race based on the rest of the data available. They then estimated how likely a person is to be killed by police in the course of their lifetime. The results show that Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White men, and Black women are 1.4 times more likely than White women. Latinos and Native Americans are more likely than White people to be shot by police as well, but by far the deepest disparity is against Black Americans.

Chart by Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Posted with permission from the authors.

Patterns are not mistakes.

Based on the experiments and studies that have been conducted so far, we know that the primary driver of the racial disparity in police killings comes not from the culture of those killed, but from the culture of those killing. Mistakes happen when cops have to make split-second decisions. But mistakes are supposed to just be outliers. When mistakes turn into patterns, and those patterns correlate with nothing other than race, it’s called racism.

You don’t have to be consciously racist to hold racial bias. You can believe that Black lives matter and still unintentionally treat them as if they don’t. Most officers — even well-meaning, genuinely good people — probably don’t even realize that they may be using race just as much as weapons to judge a situation. This is called implicit bias. It can infect anyone, not just police. Yet ignorance of one’s racism is not an excuse. It’s still racism.

The riots erupting around the nation following the death of George Floyd are the proxy war for a broader racial struggle. Police homicides are the most immediate, horrific, clearest symptom of the disease. We need a bandaid for it, but we need to treat the root of the problem even more. Black lives don’t just seem to matter less to police; they seem to matter less everywhere. Take a look at the racial disparities that exist in every facet of American society. These aren’t mistakes. They’re patterns. Like police brutality, these societal patterns are shaped by those with power rather than those with none. And they will continue until we look inward and tackle prejudice in every corner of life.

I study the relationships between political, racial, and economic inequality. PhD student at Penn State.

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