NEWARK, N.J. — Much has been debated about the numerous high-profile cases of white police officers fatally shooting unarmed black men in recent years. A recent study may change your opinion. Researchers say that shoddy police tactics and bad laws contribute more to the disproportionate killing of suspects than bad policemen out for blood.
In other words, it’s a police problem, not a white police problem, conclude researchers from Rutgers University. This finding disputes the common belief that a few “bad apples” lead to more violence against civilians, especially black men, by police.
After analyzing all uses of deadly force by police in the United States from 2014 to 2015, the research team found that the killing of unarmed suspects of any race in a police encounter is extremely rare.
“There might be some bad apples in the police department, but white officers are no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers,” says Charles Menifield, lead author of the study and dean of Rutgers’ School of Public Affairs and Administration, in a university release. “Still, the killings are no less racist but will require a very different set of remedies if we are to change the culture and stop this from happening.”
In combing through the data, Menifield’s team found that African American are killed by police at nearly twice the rate as the general population. While 12 percent of the American population is black, they calculated 28 percent of people killed by police during the study period were black. Latinos were also killed at a slightly higher rate than expected, while white citizens less often.
The study also showed that less than 1 percent of victims in police killings were unarmed. In fact, across all races, two-thirds of people killed by police were armed. And while prominent police-involved shootings, such as the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, have only fueled the belief by many that white cops are targeting black suspects with lethal force, the study found that “white police officers actually kill black and other minority suspects at lower rates than would be expected if killings were randomly distributed among officers of all races.”
The cause of this staggering rate of violence against African Americans, according to Menifield, is institutional racism within police departments that lead to damaging policies, like stop-and-frisk, targeting minority communities.
“The question of the basic causes of racial disparities in police killings has profound real-world implications for policing a diverse society,” says Menifield. “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.”
While fixing the problem could take many years, Menifield suggests the federal government should more strongly enforce the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which requires law enforcement to report data on police killings. The information would provide more thorough information on each case and help experts better determine the factors behind police-involved deaths. He also suggests police departments have external reviewers look at each precinct’s policies from top to bottom in hopes of appealing to the public and earning back some of the trust that’s been damaged.
“There is definitely a problem when one race of people are being killed by police at much higher rates than other populations,” says Menifield. “This unfortunate state of affairs is unlikely to improve until fundamental changes in public policy and policing are undertaken.”
The study was published June 19, 2018 on the Wiley Online Library.