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Guest Post: We’ve been underestimating racial disparities in police use of lethal force

Lack of data on non-fatal police shootings is a crucial component to understanding, reducing police violence.

Data on how often police fatally shoot people in America is generally compiled most extensively by outside watchdogs and may miss some incidents. Data on how often police simply wound someone is far more spotty. Here, criminologists John Shjarback of Rowan University and Justin Nix of the University of Nebraska at Omaha dig into nonfatal police shootings in four states and find racial disparities among those wounded. They extrapolate that hundreds of these shootings go uncounted, and unanalyzed, nationwide every year.

Just ten years ago, we didn’t know how often U.S. police officers killed people. That’s because local police departments have never been required to report this information to the federal government. And according to a recent study, about 55 percent of police-caused deaths were misclassified by medical examiners between 1980 and 2019.

For a second year, most U.S. police departments decline to share information on their use of force

But now, we have a much better idea of how frequently this happens. U.S. police officers shoot and kill approximately 1,000 people each year, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. These fatal shootings account for 65 to 95 percent of police-involved deaths, according to the websites Fatal Encounters and Mapping Police Violence. Black and Hispanic Americans are killed at a higher rate than White Americans, according to The Post’s database.

These are important revelations. Yet we still do not know how often U.S. police officers use lethal force, which is a serious oversight.

In a new study published in PLoS One, we quantified how often people were nonfatally shot by police officers in Florida (from 2009-14), Colorado (from 2010-19), Texas (from 2015-2019), and California (from 2016-19). Forty-five percent of the 2,968 people who were struck by police gunfire sustained nonfatal injuries. People shot by police in Colorado had the highest mortality rate at 63 percent, followed by California (56 percent), Florida (54 percent), and Texas (53 percent).

If we assumed similar mortality rates in other states, it would mean 800 or more people are shot and injured, but not killed, by police nationwide each year.

We also found that racial disparities in nonfatal police shootings were more pronounced than in fatal police shootings. The figure below shows the risk of Black and Hispanic people being shot by police officers, relative to White people, in each state. In all four states, we would underestimate Black-White disparities in police use of lethal force if we only had access to information on shootings that result in death.

Conditional on having been shot by a police officer, Black victims were roughly seven percent less likely to die than White victims (while controlling for age, gender, access to trauma care, and whether the victim was armed). In these four states, the odds of a Black person dying after being shot by a police officer were 50/50. For members of other racial or ethnic groups, the odds were between 57 percent and 64 percent.

So, on one hand, we now have a much better understanding of patterns and trends in police-caused deaths. But on the other hand, the best data we have are an incomplete and probably nonrandom sample of all police uses of lethal force. While there is some degree of chance between whether a person who is shot lives or dies, a variety of situational, organizational and ecological factors can influence the likelihood of a police shooting being fatal, and, therefore, appearing in these public data sets.

Consider the controversial police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020. The incident was in the national spotlight and sparked protests and violent civil unrest. Yet, because he survived, neither Blake’s name nor the circumstances surrounding the shooting will appear in the databases compiled by The Washington Post, Fatal Encounters, and Mapping Police Violence.

The Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, 2015-2021

Analyses of these data may produce results that are statistically biased by factors that influence mortality, such as whether bullets pierce vital organs, whether officers administer first aid or engage in “scoop and run” practices, and whether an adult trauma care center is nearby. Regarding race and the ecology of place, and given disparities in both distance and access to quality hospitals across geographic areas, mortality rates in police shootings may differ significantly among racial and ethnic groups.

Researchers, practitioners, politicians, policymakers and reform advocates are missing a significant number of lethal force incidents when they rely on national databases that focus solely on deaths. This seriously hinders our ability to systematically evaluate departmental policies, training, and other organizational practices that may limit police use of firearms, and by extension, reduce the number of people who are fatally shot.

We cannot continue to wait for the federal government to collect comprehensive data on police use of lethal force. The stakes are too high. Fortunately, several states large and small, liberal and conservative — including Texas, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine — have taken it upon themselves. We believe the remaining states can and should follow suit.

John Shjarback is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rowan University. Justin Nix is a distinguished associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.