A new look at data on violent police encounters reveals that the chances of getting killed or injured during a police encounter are mostly the same across races.
The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, provides a nuanced view of the intersection of race and law enforcement in America. In the analysis, researchers from the U.S. and Australia used several national databases and hospital records, spanning a range of years from 2011-2015, to count the number of injuries and deaths inflicted by law enforcement officers during stops, searches and arrests. Approximately one in every 291 police stops or arrests ends in injury or death, the researchers found.
Racial minorities—especially blacks and Native Americans between ages 15-29—were more likely to be stopped and searched or arrested by the police than whites.
The ratios of death or injury across races, once a person is stopped, are the same, which initially surprised lead study author Ted Miller, principal research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland. “Maybe the decision to pull you over was racially biased; maybe the decision to arrest you once you were pulled over was racially biased,” Miller says. “But who a police officer kills or injures is probably more of a function of who resists arrest or who pulls out a knife or gun,” he says. The chance that a firearm injury or a hospital-admitted injury would be fatal was also the same across races.
The study revealed that kids are less likely to be seriously injured or killed by cops than adults. “All the dialogue has been around minority teens who are shot and killed,” Miller says. “But it turns out that either the kids aren’t seeming as threatening or the police are being a little more skilled at solving confrontation with kids.” Another reason may be that more minority parents are coaching their kids to keep their hands out and visible if a police officer approaches them, to ask for permission before reaching for their wallet and to speak respectfully even when an officer is rude. “That may be a factor that counterbalances some of that racism,” Miller says.
The stakes are much higher on the other end of the age spectrum. Though it rarely happens, when people ages 65 and over were stopped or arrested, they were the most likely age group to be killed and about four times as likely to be admitted to a hospital due to an injury. “If you’ve already got brittle bones, and you resist arrest enough that a cop shoves you to the ground or up against the wall, you may get a broken bone whereas a younger person might just get a bruise,” Miller says.
The results shed light on an issue in America that grows more topical each week: police brutality. “If we want to make real progress against this problem, we have to get at why the police are pulling over more minorities than whites and stopping them and searching them,” Miller says. Those reasons include a mix of poverty, racism, income disparities and poor police relations with communities.