The number of persons annually killed by law enforcement officers has significantly reduced over the last 40 years. Despite this, studies have repeatedly found the number of African Americans killed by police officers are disproportionately higher than other races. Over the last few years, there have been a number of high-profile killings of African Americans by white police officers. These incidents have further eroded trust between the police and minority citizens and has led some to speculate white officers may target non-white persons when using lethal force.
The purpose of this study is to determine whether “white officers are more likely to use lethal force on minority suspects or people a specific race.” This factual determination is critical to facilitating the conversation needed to build this trust.
As part of their literature review researchers described several robust experimental studies that suggested officer-involved shootings of African Americans were not the result of officers’ racial bias. Still, these studies did not specifically address the issue of shootings of African Americans by white officers. To address this question, a database was constructed of 860 and 1,092 persons who were intentionally killed by officers in 2014 and 2015 respectfully.
The breakdown of persons killed were 51 percent white, 28.1 percent African American, 19.3 percent Hispanic/Latino and 1.7 percent Asian American. With African American making up 13 percent of the population they were significantly over represented in the number of persons killed while whites made up significantly less.
Second, they evaluated the proposition that officers are killing unarmed suspects. This study found no evidence to support this assertion. Less than one percent of all persons killed by police were unarmed. The overwhelming majority of persons “killed by police are armed with two-thirds armed with a gun.”
When the race of the officer was examined, it was noted that 61 percent of the U.S. population is white but whites make up 74 percent of officers in the United States. Taking these factors into account, researchers found that African Americans are killed at slightly higher rates by nonwhite officers than by white officers.
The researchers concluded their article with the statement, “Police officers have a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, and the realities of the job sometimes make it necessary to use force – even lethal force- on citizens.” The perceived racial disparities in the way force is applied has eroded trust between law enforcement and the public. This reduced level of trust will continue until fundamental changes in public policy are taken.