Editors Pick

Officer-Involved Killings Now a Leading Cause of Death For Young Men in America

Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

It’s a data point as American as it is macabre, but a new study has identified police killings as a leading cause of death among young American men.

The research, recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, finds officer-involved deaths (shootings, chokeholds, and other uses of force) to be the 6th leading cause of death among all men ages 25 to 29. Out of 100,000 people, 1.8 deaths can be attributed to an officer-related killings, the study found.

It’s important to note this number lags way behind the top five causes of death: car accidents (76.6 deaths per 100,000), suicide (26.7) homicide (22), heart disease (7) and cancer (6.3).

Still, few—if any—other developed countries could attribute a leading cause of death to state violence in this way. While the study doesn’t specify whether the use of force was “justified,” the Washington Post notes that the FBI considers about 400-500 of police-involved killings as justifiable deaths. Meanwhile, independent organizations have tallied roughly 1,000 police killings annually.

Of course, the numbers get even worse when you separate out black men.

From The Post (emphasis mine):

For a black man, the risk of being killed by a police officer is about 2.5 times higher than that of a white man. “Our models predict that about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys will be killed by police over the life course,” the authors write.

Police killings account for 1.6 percent of all deaths of black men age 20 to 24, the study found. Among white men, police are responsible for 0.5 percent of all deaths in that age group. A 40-year-old black man has about the same risk of being killed by a police officer as a 20-year-old white man.

Latinx and Native American men were also more likely to be killed by police than white men.

The data is notable in part because officer-involved shootings are a component of gun violence that is talked about less frequently than, say, mass shootings—even though it has major ramifications for communities across the country.

The Post connects the dots between the country’s high rates of gun-ownership and police violence this way:

The nation’s high rates of violence and gun ownership make many police fearful for their lives, research shows. Data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund shows that, in recent years, 100 to 200 officers are killed annually in the line of duty. And other research shows that police are more likely to be killed in the line of duty in states with more permissive gun laws.

Add traumatized and trigger-happy police to centuries of messaging that communities of color—black men in particular—are inherently more violent and crime-prone, and it’s not surprising that the number of fatalities attributed to law enforcement would be so high.

Authors of the PNAS study note that the high rate of officer-involved shootings is worsened by the heightened role police play in American life.

“Austerity in social welfare and public health programs has led to police and prisons becoming catchall responses to social problems,” the researchers wrote.

The study suggests better funding for community-based services could help rectify the problem, as well as ceasing to use armed police officers as first responders in crisis situations like wellness checks.


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