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After Ferguson, black men still face the highest risk of being killed by police

Five years after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, launched a national conversation about race and police brutality, black men are still more likely to die by police violence than white men.

According to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, over the course of a lifetime, black men face a one in 1,000 risk of being killed during an encounter with police, a rate much higher than that of white men.

What the study found

Black men and boys face the highest risk of being killed by police–at a rate of 96 out of 100,000 deaths. By comparison, white men and boys face a lower rate of 39 per 100,000 deaths, despite being a bigger portion of the U.S. population. Overall, men faced a rate of 52 per 100,000 deaths.

Lead author Frank Edwards, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, studied federal data from 2013 to 2018 that was pulled from the National Vital Statistics System. Each year, those numbers are compiled from death certificates. He also used Fatal Encounters data, which uses media reporting and social media to count how many police-involved deaths occur nationwide and identify each victim’s demographic information.

That risk is greatest between ages 20 and 35 for men and women overall, and men are far more likely than women to be killed by police, Edwards said. He noted that the numbers they have are “conservative” and said that many killings likely go unreported. More data is needed to understand the scale and scope of this problem, he said.

Different worlds, different worldviews

On Aug. 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking national outrage. The Black Lives Matter protest movement grew out of that moment, and debate continues about how and why people of color are targets for police violence.

Over the years, police-involved shootings of unarmed people of color further fueled efforts to increase accountability of public safety officials and better understand the needs of the communities they are meant to serve.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center surveyed the public’s opinions about police performance and found wide gaps in perception between black and white respondents, said Rich Morin, a pollster and senior editor for Pew. In the survey, only 33 percent of African Americans said police do a good or excellent job of using the right amount of force in each encounter compared to the 75 percent of white Americans who believed in the judgement of police.

“Blacks and whites live in two very different worlds with two very different worldviews on a variety of issues. One of those areas is police,” Morin said in 2016.

In this latest study, the results are “definitely not an overcount,” Edwards said. Edwards and his team analyzed the Fatal Encounters database, started by Brian Burghart. To build the database, Burghart relied on public records requests and crowdsourced data. Researchers included data gleaned from killings recorded by the media and victim details pulled from social media to identify officer-involved fatal shootings and the demographic details of victims.

A decade ago, the Department of Justice stopped collecting data on deaths tied to police violence because the numbers were unreliable, Edwards said. Reporting these cases was voluntary, and there were virtually no incentives for police departments to submit this information to the federal government. Inside the department, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has used the database and other crowdsourced methods to factcheck its own arrest-related deaths statistics and redesign the program, according to a December 2016 report.

But following Ferguson, the increased attention paid to police brutality complicated the ability to collect data, Burghart wrote on his blog.

“Trolls spent more time breaking the publicly editable sheet than I had time to fix it,” he wrote. He had to restrict editing privileges to preserve the work.

In the years since Ferguson, other outlets, including The Washington Post, created their own databases to log law enforcement-related deaths to inform their coverage of police shootings. In 2016, the project won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.