The epidemic of police killings in the US has garnered international news attention, beginning with the death of 18-year-old unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August of 2014. The killing of Michael Brown conjured a synchronized uproar of “Hands up, don’t shoot” by American protesters – a rally cry detailing the final moments of Michael Brown’s life, and highlighting the epidemic of police force disproportionately used against people of color in the US.
Not all Americans are at equal risk for experiencing police violence. In fact, there are large discrepancies in risk across gender, age, and racial groups for harm and death by police force. A study published by the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice (RSCJ) on August 5, 2019 gathered data on police killings through news outlets and media (which provide more comprehensive information than do the official data disseminated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, according to Edwards et. al. of RSCJ,) to gauge lifetime risk. Edwards et. al. cites the discrepancies in gender, age, and race in the use of deadly force by law enforcement as a “key vector” of health inequality.
When researchers at RSCJ looked across gender strata, they found the lifetime odds of being killed by police at the current rate (years 2013-2018) is approximately 1 in 2,000 for men in the United States overall, and approximately 1 in 33,000 for women in the United States overall. When weighing differences among groups, they found that men’s lifetime risk of death by police force is about 20 times higher than women’s risk at current rates in the US. This enormous margin in gender-based exposure to police violence is further accentuated when race and age are factored into the equation. This study did not include any data on transgender individuals.
Edwards et. al. estimated that at current rates of police violence, black men between the ages of 25-29 (the critical window identifiable by highest exposure to police force across all genders) have a 1 in 1,000 risk of being killed by law enforcement over the lifecourse. This statistic places death by police force as a leading cause of death for men of color in the United States. Black men in the US are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white males. Women, while at lower risk overall, see increased exposure to police force by racial group as well. Black women and Native American/Alaskan Native women are at highest risk, with black women in the US being 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police, compared to white women.
Public health is dependent on an understanding of the intricate relationships between sex, gender, race, age, class, and all other major factors that impact health across the lifecourse. To solve complex social problems, sociologists must come together with clinicians alike, and blend our niche understandings of human health to improve both its biological and sociological prisms. Police violence in the United States is an epidemic that showcases how gender inequity does not exist in a vacuum; It is exacerbated by racism and further discrimination alike.
Despite heightened media attention over the killings of people of color – i.e. Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Charleena Lyles, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice – little has been done to improve the surveillance of police response and, more importantly, introduce realistic consequences for excessive use of force by law enforcement. Researchers at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice suggest funding more Public Health programs that will deter police and prisons from “becoming catch-all responses to social problems.” Cases involving mental health in particular must be rerouted toward social services which are more suited to support those living with mental illness. They also encourage the Bureau of Justice Statistics to expand and refine their data information systems to track law enforcement-related deaths. Until then, the public will rely on media outlets to fully understand the magnitude of discriminatory police violence in the United States.