Police Are a Leading Cause of Death for Young Men, Especially Those of Color, Study Finds

Photo: Yana Paskova (Getty Images)

For men, especially men of color, coming face to face with the police may be one of the most likely ways to die young, a new study out Monday finds. The study estimated that black men are twice as likely to be killed by police than men of other races. It also found that police use of force is one of the leading causes of death for all young men.

To reach their conclusions, researchers at Rutgers University and elsewhere looked at mortality data reported by the U.S. government and Fatal Encounters, a project founded by Nevada journalist D. Brian Burghart and others. Fatal Encounters identifies and tallies up deaths caused by police by combing through media articles and other sources of public records (though this data collection was initially crowdsourced, the organization now largely relies on paid researchers).

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Based on “police-involved” deaths recorded between 2013 and 2017, they estimated that black men had the highest risk of being killed by police, while white men had the lowest. One in every 1,000 black men are killed by police, they found, while the same is true for one in every 2,000 men overall. Men in other racial and ethnic groups were similarly more likely to be killed by police than white men, including Hispanic (1.4 times more likely) and Native American men (1.5 times more likely). Only one in every 33,000 women, on the other hand, are killed by the police, though black women were still more likely to be killed than white women.

Edwards and his team also tried to calculate the odds of men being killed by police across age as well. Reported police killings (more than 11,000 in the study’s sample) most often happened to men between the ages of 25 and 29, amounting to an estimated mortality rate of 1.8 deaths per 100,000 men in that age group every year. That would make police the sixth leading cause of death in that age group, only behind things like accidents (including car crashes and drug overdoses), heart disease, and suicide.

Their results were published Monday in the journal PNAS.

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“The inequality is not surprising,” said lead author Frank Edwards, assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark, in a release from Rutgers. “All you have to do is turn on the news to see that people of color are at a much greater risk of police-related harm.”

By publishing these findings, the team ultimately wants to galvanize the government into establishing an accurate, national database of police killings. Indeed, projects like Fatal Encounters began because of the lack of such a database. In 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shut down its collection of data on “arrest-related deaths,” after finding that it likely was missing many cases. This July, the agency published data from a pilot study on a similar program that would improve its data collection, though it’s still unclear if and when a national database will be started up again.

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“The Bureau of Justice Statistics needs to develop a comprehensive system that would track police-related deaths,” said Edwards. “We need to increase transparency of police use-of-force if we are going to decrease the number of civilian deaths in this country as a result of these encounters.”

Edwards and his team aren’t the only ones to argue that interacting with police is often a dangerous, unhealthy proposition for people. Just this week, the New York Health Department warned the public that “involvement with the criminal justice systemeven brief contact with the police or indirect exposure is associated with lasting harm to people’s physical and mental health.”

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere