Over a five-year period, police killed people of color at disproportionately higher rates than white people. It’s happening so frequently, researchers say it’s a public health emergency.
(CN) — The death of George Floyd — an unarmed Black man killed at the hands of a white police officer — on Memorial Day sparked protests in solidarity across the world against police violence.
His killing, caught on video and shared across the world, shocked many, but was not surprising to others.
The narrative of a white officer killing an unarmed person of color has been repeated throughout the U.S. for years. The countless deaths eventually sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.
Now a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examines years of data to reveal that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. The study calls fatal police shootings a public health emergency that contribute to poor health for Black, indigenous and other people of color.
Their findings were published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The report’s findings — based on publicly available data compiled by The Washington Post — show that over a five-year period, the killing of Black people remained consistently high when compared to the overall population.
Researchers looked at race/ethnicity and age information of 4,653 people killed by police. They found more than half of those killed were white, followed by 27% Black, 19% Hispanic, 2% Asian and 2% Native Americans. When racial and ethnic proportions are considered, the deaths of people of color at the hands of police is disproportionate according to the researchers.
While the average age of those killed was 34, white victims tended to be older, averaging age 38. The average age of death for Black people was 30.
Police violence came into sharp focus over the last several months with the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more. Urban centers across the country all have their own personal lists of people killed by police.
Grechario Mack was 30 and having a mental health crisis when he was shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers in 2018 at the Crenshaw Mall. Mack was holding a kitchen knife because he was paranoid, and approached a security guard to call for some type of medical help.
Instead, police stormed the mall with their guns drawn and fired at him as he ran away.
“He was scared,” said Quintus Moore, Mack’s father, in an interview. “Police came in, like witnesses said, they stormed in there like the Navy SEALs. They fired 15 times at my son, hitting the windows of the GameStop, blowing glass everywhere. My son was hit 7 or 8 times. He was not the one putting anyone in danger.”
Moore said if medical expert arrived at the scene and de-escalated the situation, his son would be alive today. He said none of the officers were charged and were only found to be out of policy for the last shot they fired at Mack, while he laid on the floor in a pool of his own blood.
Since then, Moore has become an active member of the Los Angeles Black Lives Matter chapter and vocal critic of LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. He sees her office’s lack of prosecutions against police officers as one “piece of a puzzle that will stop the murdering rampage” of people of color.
Moore called the findings of Tuesday’s study “shameful.”
“This shows how racist law enforcement in America really are,” he said. “They’ve been getting away with murder.”
According to the study, Black people and Native Americans are roughly 3 times more likely to be shot dead by police than white people. Of the over 4,600 people killed by police from 2015 to 2020, 753 (16%) were unarmed. The rates of police killing unarmed Black and Hispanic people are significantly higher than for white people — three times higher and 45% higher, respectively.
Epidemiology doctoral student and study lead author Elle Lett with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania said one of the saddest things about Black pain is that “it has to be proven to be believed” despite the consistent killings of Black people in the U.S.
When asked if it was study authors’ intention to provide policy solutions and wade into a political discussion, Lett said, “I will put it to you like this: medicine has never been apolitical.”
In an interview, Lett said health equity is center mind for the study and if more people are being killed because of racist policies then it’s something that cannot be ignored.
Lett knows generations of Black peers have that conversation with their families about behaving around police and they cannot behave like their white peers, because it can be a life or death situation.
Study co-author and medical student Emmanuella Asabor from Yale University School of Medicine says she was motivated to be part of the study during the tumultuous last few months in the U.S. and continuing to see more Black people being killed by police.
“There’s an awareness of this type of violence inflected against Black bodies,” Asabor said in an interview, noting she has the skills and platform to highlight the medical crisis discussed in the paper. “Something about the circulation of videos that show the killing of people who look like you with that get such little regard from the rest of the world is difficult to comprehend. It felt impossible to ignore what was going on.”
Asabor said the study authors recognized this is a longstanding issue that has been met with incremental changes on the use of police force and criminal justice reform, but those have all been ineffective as more people of color are killed by police.
“We believe health care professions have a stake in this conversation,” said Asabor. “Police violence impacts people’s ability to live and it causes death.”
According to the study, the loss of life at the hands of police is equivalent to 31,960 years based on the national historical life expectancy, the researchers said. That’s equal to 83% of fatalities cause by cyclist road injuries, 78% of unintentional firearm injuries, 63% of those who die due to meningitis and 57% of those caused by maternal deaths, according to the report.
But racism alone does not explain the numbers, the study authors said.
“Our findings suggest the influence of an insidious anti-Black and anti-indigenous logic to police violence that warrants further exploration into the role of these factors in fatal police encounters,” they wrote.
“The literature on the ‘twin genocidal’ process of enslavement and land dispossession for Black and Indigenous communities may begin to illuminate the unique but related ways that white supremacy has shaped these groups experiences with policing in North America,” they continued.
The authors did not respond to a request for comment on their findings.