Novel Research Methods Reveal More About Police Violence

If you follow the news, you can’t miss the stories about violent interactions between police and civilians. Over the past six years, there have been dozens of high profile cases of police violence against civilians and, specifically, African-Americans. Numerous activist groups campaigning for the people involved in these incidents have formed including Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Blue Lives Matter and many more.

But based on individual media reports alone, it can be difficult to understand the dynamics occurring across the nation. Although the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both collect data about deaths caused by law enforcement officers, police departments are not required to report such deaths  to any federal body. As a result, the federal data are incomplete.

Frank Edwards, postdoctoral associate with Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, used novel research methods and a different data set to estimate how many civilians were killed by police officers from 2012-2018. The study was published this summer in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Police departments are not required by law to report deaths that occur due to officer action and may have strong incentives to be sensitive with data due to public affairs and community relations,” Edwards said. “Effectively, we don’t know what’s happening if all we look at is the official data.”

Edwards used data from Fatal Encounters, a public, web-based database that collects information from journalists, activists and researchers in an effort to provide more complete information on violent conflict between police and civilians.

The analysis found more than 10,000 deaths involving police officers between 2012 and 2018, or nearly 3 deaths each day. And it found the risk of being killed by police is 3.2 to 3.5 times higher for black men compared to white men, and between 1.4 and 1.7 times higher for Latino men compared to white men.

The analysis also demonstrated that geographic location matters. “One thing that really stands out within our research is that while the large central metros see a large chunk of killings by police, it is only a third of the total,” Edwards said. “That means two-thirds of all the shootings we’re finding are in suburban, smaller metropolitan and rural areas, which have received scant attention from both researchers and the media.”

In the Mountain States, police were responsible for about 17 percent of all homicides, while in the Middle Atlantic states, police accounted for about 5 percent of all homicides. Police accounted for more than 10 percent of all homicides in predominantly rural areas and about 7 percent of all homicides in large central metropolitan areas.

Though this research provides more accurate data on the use of deadly force by police, Edwards cautions that the data are not complete.

“The new data that we’re using are capturing a lot more cases than what the official data are showing us, but there is still an undercount,” he said.

The take-home message? There is clear evidence that we lack data on violence between police officers and civilians. New research methods offer a more accurate picture of these incidents across the nation, but more research is needed to understand the social factors related to violence between police and civilians.

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