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Police killings twice as common as reported, UW study finds

KOMO News file photo shows the aftermath of a police shooting in King County.

SEATTLE - A new study has found that police kill twice as many people as reported in official statistics, and that black men are 3 1/2 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.

The study, carried out by the University of Washington and Cornell University, used a variety of data sources and found that police officers are responsible for about 8 percent of all homicides of adult males in the United States - or about 2.8 homicides every day on average.

However, official statistics released by the police departments themselves show a rate of less than 4 percent.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, also shows that the risk of being killed by police is 3.2 to 3.5 times higher for black men than white men, and between 1.4 and 1.7 times higher for Latino men.

Researchers determined these probabilities with six years’ worth of data from a source that collects information from journalists, activists and researchers through public records and media coverage. This method is more reliable than police departments’ own reports, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The study was led by Frank Edwards, a postdoctoral associate with Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and co-authored by Michael Esposito, who did this work as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Washington.

Past research on police killings has been limited by the absence of systematic data, Edwards said. Such data, primarily collected through the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest-Related Deaths program or the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, are widely acknowledged as unreliable due to limited scope and voluntary data reporting.

“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,” he said. “Effectively, we don’t know what’s happening if all we look at is the official data.”

Esposito, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan, points to a 2014 article in ProPublica, which showed how some communities had not reported fatal shootings by police since 1997.

“Our ability to speak about police-involved deaths in the U.S. has really been hampered by shortcomings of official data sources,” he said. “We thought we could make a contribution here by just describing what police-involved homicides look like in our country.”

For the study, the researchers used public records and media reports to identify 6,295 adult male victims of police homicide over a six-year period between Jan. 1, 2012, and Feb. 12, 2018 — averaging about 1,028 deaths per year, or 2.8 deaths per day.

Of those 6,295 victims, 2,993 were white, 1,779 were black, 1,145 were Latino, 114 were Asian-Pacific Islander and 94 were American Indian-Alaska Native.

During the six-year period of the study, black men were killed at the highest rate: at least 2.1 per 100,000 men. Latino and white men had lower rates: 1 and 0.6, respectively.

In the Pacific region, which includes Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, black men in large metro areas were killed by a police at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000, Latino men at 1.1 per 100,000, and white men at 0.9 per 100,000.

In Washington state, an average of a little more than three black men per 100,000 people are killed by police each year, compared to an average of about one per 100,000 among Latino men and fewer than one per 100,000 among white men.

Another surprise finding of the study was that the majority of police killings occur in less-populated regions outside large urban metro areas.

“I think that there’s an idea that these events are constrained to large urban areas, but the data suggest that’s not the case,” Esposito said.

Hedy Lee, a former faculty member in the UW Department of Sociology who is now at Washington University in St. Louis, also contributed to the study.

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