There’s a lot we don’t know about how many people have actually been killed at police hands in the United States, thanks to woefully inadequate transparency and federal record-keeping. But there’s one thing we do now know: Among those we do know were shot by police, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot dead than their white counterparts.
“The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police,” a new ProPublica report explains, noting that if whites were killed at the same ratio there would have been another 185 white deaths, just during that three-year period, just of those in that narrow age range.
To arrive at this statistic, ProPublica analyzed the list of 12,000 police shooting deaths that were self-reported by agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation between 1980 and 2012. Because this data is self-reported and departments are not required to submit information, this data likely significantly undercounts the number of shootings. Florida departments, for example, haven’t submitted data since 1997 and New York City hasn’t submitted data since 2007. And the FBI asks only for “justifiable homicide” figures, meaning in those instances where the shootings are most overtly viewed as unjustified or the litigation is ongoing, departments are less likely to report.
Still, assessing available data may provide the best insight we have into how grave racial disparities in police violence are, particularly when it comes to young black men, who were stopped by NYPD officers in 2011 more times than the total number of young black men in New York City. Unsurprisingly, past analyses have also found disproportionate violence against blacks, including a 2007 investigation by Colorlines and the Chicago Reporter in 10 major cities. An NAACP report of Oakland, California, found that 37 of 45 police-involved shootings were of blacks, while zero were of whites. “Although weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases, the NAACP found, no officers were charged,” Mother Jones reported.
Studies of human and police behavior suggest that racial bias is baked into policing, particularly because individuals misperceive the threat posed by African Americans. Nonetheless, a 2012 poll after the George Zimmerman verdict found that that the gap between whites and blacks who think the justice system is biased was greater than ever.