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Police Line

PHILADELPHIA – Police shootings of unarmed Black people in the United States were three times higher than that of white people between 2015 and the beginning of 2020, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Yale University, and Drexel University. The study shows that, despite a more widespread use of body cameras and increased media attention of police brutality over the past five years, violent encounters with police continue to represent significant causes of injury and death in the United States, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health today examines data provided by the Washington Post on fatal police shootings in the United States from 2015 to the first quarter of 2020. The database draws its data from local news reports, independent databases, and its own reporting. It includes the race, age, and sex of every person killed by on-duty police officers, as well as details about whether the victims were armed or unarmed.

Using these data, the research team measured changes in fatal police shootings based on race and also calculated the death rate and total years of life lost (YLL) from these encounters, which is estimated based on the difference between the life expectancy for U.S. citizens in the victim’s birth year and their age of death. While the data is publicly available, the researchers said they wanted to enter it into the scientific literature and present it using methods that are rigorous and robust.

Overall, the report found 5,367 fatal police shootings in the five-year span, of which 4,653 were eligible for analysis because both race and age were identified. The researchers calculated that this represented an annual average of 31,960 years of life lost among all races. Over that period, researchers found a small but statistically significant decline in white deaths (about 1 percent) but no significant change in deaths for BIPOC. The rate of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black and Native American people in the U.S. was more than three times as high as it was among white people during this time period, prompting the researchers to describe U.S. police brutality as a “public health emergency.”

“Fatal police shootings are a public health crisis and it can be compared to other conditions that we consider to be important and high priority,” said lead author Elle Lett, an MD-PhD student in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “We want to address this issue of police violence and the ways that it is disproportionately experienced by marginalized groups.”

Half of the victims of the shooting fatalities were white (51 percent), followed by Black (27 percent), Hispanic (19 percent), Asian (2 percent) and Native American (nearly 2 percent). Black Americans make up only 14 percent of the U.S., showing the disproportionate impact of police killings on this population.

Lett said that the findings underscore the role that medical professionals play in broader conversations about racial and social justice, but there is further work to be done to understand how police brutality affects BIPOC as individuals. 

“We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of how fatal police shootings are a collective trauma, how this affects individuals, and what it does to their health,” Lett said.

Emmanuella Asabor, Theodore Corbin, and Dowin Boatright contributed to this research.

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