Young Hispanic men may face greatest risk from police shootings, study finds

Why neighborhoods matter: Examining fatal interactions between police and men of color

The police shooting earlier this month of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard has renewed protests over officer-involved deaths of unarmed black men, but research led by Washington University in St. Louis suggests young Hispanic men may face an even greater risk of being killed by police, especially in mixed-income neighborhoods with large Latino populations.

“When it comes to police shootings, the color of your neighborhood may matter as much as the color of your skin,” said lead researcher Odis Johnson, associate professor of education and of sociology, both in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. “Our database analysis shows that the racial and economic demographics of the neighborhood you’re in can be a powerful factor in your odds of being killed during an interaction with law enforcement.”

The study is the second in a series of reports from the ongoing Fatal Interactions with Police (FIPS) research project, which includes contributions from public health and biostatistics experts at hospitals and universities, including Saint Louis University, New York University and Harvard University. The first report in the series, which found that nearly 60 percent of black women killed by police were unarmed at the time of the interaction, also is available at the FIPS website.

The FIPS database includes details on about 1,700 fatal interactions with police that occurred in jurisdictions across the United States during a 20-month time period from May 2013 to January 2015. It estimates the demographic odds of a fatality occurring during an interaction with police based on the location of the interaction and the characteristics of the likely responding law enforcement agency.

Key findings from the first report include:

  • In neighborhoods with high levels of income inequality, such as poor areas undergoing gentrification, all males of color face a higher risk of being killed during interactions with police. Hispanic men face an even higher risk than black men in these settings.
  • Ethnically diverse neighborhoods with low levels of segregation pose a dramatically lower risk of fatal police interaction for black males.
  • Highly-segregated neighborhoods with little diversity pose a higher risk of police-related fatalities for Hispanic men.
  • Hispanic males were over 2.6 times as likely as others to be killed by officers from agencies with relatively higher percentages of Hispanic officers.
  • The odds of a civil suit being filed in response to a fatal interaction with police is 2.6 times higher in cases where the person killed was a man of color, and nearly six times higher in cases where the person killed was a black man.
  • Black males thought to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol are less likely than other black males to be killed during an interaction with police; there is no significant drop in risk for Hispanic males whose mental abilities appear to be compromised.

The project plans to issue a third report on related findings next month as it prepares to host a national symposium, titled “The Color of Policing Symposium (COPS): Youth, Education and Activism,” April 19-20 at Washington University.

“This research project examines the factors that make males of color more likely than their white and female counterparts to be killed by police,” Johnson said. “The bottom line from this latest analysis is that the demographics of the neighborhood where you live, work and walk the streets can make a big difference in the odds that a young black or Hispanic male will have a fatal interaction with law enforcement.”

The current findings suggest that the odds of fatal police actions are influenced not only by the racial and economic demographics of a city and its neighborhoods, but also by the demographics of the local law enforcement agencies that serve these neighborhoods.

“Neighborhoods characterized by racial isolation and large disparities in income and opportunity trigger heavier policing and the use of higher levels of force from officers, contributing to the greater relative odds that males of color will have fatal interactions with police,” Johnson said.

Much more than a listing of fatal police interactions around the country, the FIPS database also contains a wealth of related demographic and law enforcement data that allows the deaths to be analyzed in the context of local conditions. Database researchers gathered background on each case through an array of public records, including media accounts, death certificates and obituaries.

In addition to U.S. Census statistics on the location where the fatality occurred, FIPS includes data about local law enforcement practices and police staffing drawn from the Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Survey (LEMAS), and crime statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from about 2,800 state and local law enforcement agencies, the LEMAS data offers details on a wide range of topics: agency responsibilities, operating expenditures, job functions of sworn and civilian employees, officer salaries and special pay, demographic characteristics of officers, weapons and armor policies, education and training requirements, computers and information systems, vehicles, special units and community policing activities.

The FIPS database project was supported by Public Health Cubed Seed Funding from the Institute for Public Health at Washington University. Other researchers involved in the project include Cassandra Arroyo-Johnson, assistant professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM); Melody Goodman, interim chair the Department of Biostatistics at New York University; Marcello Pagano, professor statistical computing at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Keon L. Gilbert, associate professor in the College of Public Health and Social Justice at Saint Louis University; Christopher St. Vil, assistant professor of social work at SUNY Buffalo; David de la Cerda, doctoral student at Wake Forest University; and Nicole Ackerman, a statistical data analyst in the WUSM Public Health Sciences Division.

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