Proceed With Caution: An Analysis Of Killings By Police Shows Outsize Risk For Young Black Males But Also Highlights The Limitations Of Official Statistics

In their article "Deadly Force, In Black And White," ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara examine federally collected data on fatal police shootings.  Their analysis focuses on the more than 12,000 police homicides stretching from 1980 to 2012 contained in the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports.  Within this time frame, Gabrielson, Grochowski, and Sagara paid particular attention to reports filed for the years 2010 to 2012, the three most recent years for which FBI numbers are available.

The Supplementary Homicide Reports indicate that there were 1,217 deadly police shootings between 2010 and 2012, and that young black males (ages 15-19) "were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."  These figures were obtained by "dividing the number of people of each race killed by police by the number of people of that race living in the country at the time, to produce two different rates: the risk of getting killed by police if you are white and if you are black."

They also found that:

  • 44 percent of all those killed by police across the 33 years (1980-2012) were white, suggesting that a disproportionately high percentage of deadly police shootings victims were minorities: in 2012, Whites made up about 72.5 percent of the U.S. population; Blacks, 12.5 percent.
  • The average age of Blacks killed by police was 30. The average age of Whites was 35.
  • Black officers account for a little more than 10 percent of all fatal police shootings. Of those they killed, though, 78 percent were Black.
  • White officers killed 91 percent of the Whites who died at the hands of police and were responsible for 68 percent of the people of color killed. Those people of color represented 46 percent of all those killed by White officers.
  • There were 151 instances in which police noted that teens they had shot dead had been fleeing or resisting arrest at the time of the encounter. 67 percent of those killed in such circumstances were Black. That disparity was even starker in the last couple of years: of the 15 teens shot fleeing arrest from 2010 to 2012, 14 were Black.
  • From 1980 to 1984, "officer under attack" was listed as the cause for 33 percent of the deadly shootings. Twenty years later, looking at data from 2005 to 2009, "officer under attack" was cited in 62 percent of police killings.

"No question, there are all kinds of racial disparities across our criminal justice system," Colin Loftin, University at Albany professor and co-director of the Violence Research Group, said. "This is one example."

These statistics points to important trends, but they should be used with great caution.  As Gabrielson, Grochowski, and Sagara explain in the article, the FBI's reports suffer from serious shortcomings.

  1.  They provide only a minimum count of homicides by police because large numbers of police departments don't file fatal police shooting reports at all, or do so inconsistently (Florida departments haven't filed reports since 1997 and New York City last reported in 2007), yielding a high likelihood of measurement error and making any attempt to generalize findings or analyze trends problematic.  
  2. In addition, police do not always provide information about the circumstances of the shootings when they do report them to the FBI.  This makes it difficult to measure precisely what puts people at risk of homicide by police.  
  3. Another potential issue is that the quality of self-reported data, such as these, is dependent on the honesty of the respondents and we know that respondents are less likely to be honest about sensitive issues (such as measures relating to sexual behavior or drug use), than they are about something more benign like caffeine consumption.  In the particular case of police shootings, police departments may have little incentive to bring attention to themselves by reporting detailed information about the killings, or any information at all.

The authors conclude that "there is value in what the data can show while accepting, and accounting for, its limitations. Indeed, while the absolute numbers are problematic, a comparison between white and black victims shows important trends. [The data] confirms some assumptions, runs counter to others, and adds nuance to a wide range of questions about the use of deadly police force."

Read more: resources:
Gun Violence in America (
Fear of Crime (
Crime Victimization in the US: A Data-Driven Learning Guide (
Generational Trends in Attitudes about Gun Ownership: A Data-Driven Learning Guide (
Crime and Victims Statistics (

Frederique Laubepin

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