Death by Police is Now the 6th Leading Cause of Death Among Young Men

August 8, 2019

It was once believed that police killings were the 14th leading cause of death among young people. However, a new Rutgers University study by Frank Edwards, which used federal statistics and journalistic investigation found that the death rate is far higher now. We discuss the research with Frank Edwards

It was once believed that police killings were the 14th leading cause of death among young people. However, a new Rutgers University study by Frank Edwards, which used federal statistics and journalistic investigation found that the death rate is far higher now. We discuss the research with Frank Edwards


Death by Police is Now the 6th Leading Cause of Death Among Young Men

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner.

Good to have you with us.

A groundbreaking new study came out today, published by the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author, whose name is Dr. Frank Edwards, Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University of Newark–who joins us today–found that Black men and women, Indigenous men and women, and Latino men have a higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than white people. While that in and of itself might not be earth-shattering news to many–especially those people who live in those communities–the way the study was conducted goes deeper than many of those in the past because of new issues they could deal with that they couldn’t do before, using more than just the National Vital Statistics Systems mortality studies.

And we are now joined by Dr. Frank Edwards, who was the principal author of the Rutgers study. As I said, he’s Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University of Newark. And welcome, good to have you with us. 

FRANK EDWARDS: Thanks for having me, Mark. 

MARC STEINER: Let’s start there. What I just said at the top and reading it, and especially having both covered and been involved in this for decades now, the idea that black men are killed at higher rates than other people in this country by police is not earth-shattering. It’s news. But talk a bit about why this study is different and what it adds to it that we haven’t had before. 

FRANK EDWARDS: Right. The novelty of what we’ve done here is that prior … The availability of information on police involved killings really hasn’t been at a point where we’ve been able to classify how many people were actually killed by police and what the risk of being killed by police was, both in terms of annual risks and in terms of risks over the life course. That’s largely a function of the availability of high quality data that records policy involved killings. The federal government has never developed a comprehensive data product that tracks police involved killings. 

Journalists have really stepped into this void and have provided systems like Fatal Encounters. And what they’ve done is they’ve relied on news reports- 

MARC STEINER: Let me stop you one second. What is Fatal Encounters? I never heard of it before your report. What is that? 

FRANK EDWARDS: So Fatal Encounters is a system that was developed by Brian Burghart. He’s a newspaper editor from Reno, Nevada. As he tells it, he was reporting a story on a fatal police shooting in Nevada and was interested in developing some comparable statistics to think about how frequently this was happening in his community, and was not able to find any information in any official data source. So, he began a process where he submitted open records requests and eventually landed on this method of relying on news reports and a series of news alerts to classify and code cases of fatal police violence. Over time, it’s turned into the most reliable source of information on police involved killings in the country. 

MARC STEINER: I’m curious how you even begin to do that. Because that’s a huge undertaking, to look at all the news sources around the country and kind of analyze them all, go through them all. We’re talking about 50 states, thousands of cities and counties around the country. 

FRANK EDWARDS: That’s right. 

MARC STEINER: How are they able to do that? 

FRANK EDWARDS: He’s been tireless in his work and it’s become his full time job. He’s had help from other trained researchers, but it’s been a monumental lift and it’s been five or six years. He believes that within the last couple of years, the data has become comprehensive going back to 2000. He argues that he’s got every case that’s covered in the news going back to the year 2000. In our research, we use what official data does exist, which is through the National Vital Statistics. Those are the sort of coroners or medical examiners reports on official causes of death. 

So, we use those data to compare them to what Fatal Encounters reports- 

MARC STEINER: What did you find in terms of the difference between what you found from the national statistics from the government and what you found in terms of what this particular site did?

FRANK EDWARDS: Yeah. So, NVSS, the National Vital Statistics, those are based on medical examiners reports, and they record about 50 percent of all cases of police involved death that occur in the country. There’s been a few other studies by other authors that have looked at the coverage of cases from National Vital Statistics relative to the coverage of cases in systems like Fatal Encounters, and have shown that Fatal Encounters is capturing nearly all the cases that medical examiners report as occurring due to police, but it’s recording about twice as many cases. And NVSS is failing to capture a lot of those cases. Every case in the system is fact checked. It’s linked out. There’s a URL provided for each nugget of information; each variable coded in the data set. It’s a really reliable data set.

And the thing that we think is kind of fascinating about it is that the numbers that we’re reporting are similar to numbers that you would get from the CDC for any other causes of death like suicide, homicide, cancer. We think that this kind of epidemiological or public health approach is a really powerful way to think about this phenomenon. But it’s not until we’ve had these data that we’ve actually been able to build the kind of models we need to describe risk. The thing about Fatal Encounters, though–and it’s kind of the key limitation to the data, but also something for us to kind of think about–is the numbers that we report in the study are conservative. Because for a case to be recorded, it has to be reported by the news and picked up by the search method that the team uses. 

MARC STEINER: So, maybe even more is what you’re saying? 

FRANK EDWARDS: That’s right. There are definitely more. 

MARC STEINER: I’m curious: what you discovered, how is it different than what we’ve known before? I mean, in terms of the numbers, in terms of actual people who were killed, percentages in terms of ethnicity in the country, what’s different in terms of what you did? I read part of the abstract, but what’s the difference between what you did and what’s been done before? 

FRANK EDWARDS: Right. We haven’t had the kind of study that’s modeled risk in the way that we’ve done it before, to our knowledge. Nancy Krieger at Harvard has done some path breaking work in this area. And she used the National Vital Statistics to look at risk of death over time and found relatively high rates of death in earlier eras. But the problem is, as I mentioned before with that data, is that we know it’s an undercount. This is the first paper that’s used these crowd sourced or these kind of journalist produced data, these unofficial data, to produce these kind of risk models. What’s new is that we’re finding that lifetime risk for Black men is about one death per thousand people. So, over the life course, we’re estimating that for every 100,000 Black male babies born, by the time that that person goes through their life course and eventually dies, we estimate that about 100 of those will have been killed by police, which translates to a 1 in 1000 risk. We’ve never had a precise estimate of lifetime risk that could make those kinds of statements before. 

MARC STEINER: What does it mean to have a lifetime risk, as opposed to the other statistical analyses that have been done before this? What does that mean? 

FRANK EDWARDS: Well, so a normal analysis, we could take the number of deaths, divide that by the number of people in the population to get a risk per population, a risk per capita estimate. That’d be a standard kind of ratio of deaths per population. What we do in our paper is we use a demographic method called a life table. What we do is we have five years of data, we have 2013 to 2018 data that we use in this analysis. And what we can do is we can look at exposure to death over that period of time and then run a simulation that asks, “What if 100,000 people had been exposed to this risk and also exposed to the ordinary levels of death that exist in the population at each age?” And ask, “How many of them would eventually be killed by police as they run through their life course?” We can effectively ask the question, “If 100,000 babies were born today and were exposed to the ordinary levels of mortality that we see in the population, in addition to being exposed to the levels of police mortality that we observe in the data, how many of them when they die would have been killed by police?” 

MARC STEINER: So, one of the things that really jumped out. We’ve always known that police killings of citizens in this country are among the top ten reasons people die in this country. But what you’re discovering here for this age group is the sixth largest reason, sixth most significant reason why people die in that age group. 

FRANK EDWARDS: Yeah. For young men between 25 and 29, we find that police are the sixth leading cause of death. Now, the vital statistics data would rank them at the fourteenth leading cause. Our estimates revise that number- 

MARC STEINER: That’s huge. That’s a huge difference. 

FRANK EDWARDS: Yes. For young men in that age group–and this holds for young men roughly 20 to 29 as well–in order, it goes accidents, which includes vehicles and overdoses, then suicides; homicides; heart disease, which includes congenital heart issues; cancer, and then police. So, police are just under cancer in terms of killers of young men. 

MARC STEINER: I know this is not part of the study or part of what you’re doing, but what does this say to you in terms of what it says about our society, what it says about how we have to approach this? This is pretty stunning data. You go from fourteenth leading cause of death for young men to sixth at the hands of the police. That’s a huge number. 

FRANK EDWARDS: That’s right. That’s right. We link this finding to a lot of prior that shows that the criminal justice system has profound consequences for public health. We know, for example, that exposure to aggressive stop and frisk policing has incredibly negative consequences for the mental health of the young people in New York City who routinely experience harassment and threats and physical violence from the police. Amanda Geller, Jeff Fagan, and a number of other scholars have found PTSD like symptoms among the young people who experience that kind of aggressive police stop. 

There’s a really fascinating study published in The Lancet last year that showed that in states where an unarmed Black person was killed, in that same state within a few weeks, you would see an increase in depressive symptoms among other people of color living in that state, other African Americans living in that state. However, when an unarmed white person was shot and killed by police, you saw no similar increase in depressive symptoms for white residents of that state. There’s a sort of ecological effect on mental health that comes from exposure to police violence that we think really indicates how people of color understand the police as a threat to their wellbeing. 

MARC STEINER: So, a little sidebar before we have to go. One of the things–I was looking in your stats in terms of Indigenous people in this country. And I remember there was a CDC study, I guess it was last year if I’m correct–it was 2017 or it might’ve been last year–that showed that the population in this country that has the largest percentage of people killed by police are Indigenous men and women. Was that born out in your study as well? 

FRANK EDWARDS: It depends on how you classify it. When you use the National Vital Statistics, you do see a much larger share of American Indians and Alaska Natives killed by police as a proportion of the total killed. Now, we’re showing larger numbers of American Indians and Alaska Natives killed by police, but the shares don’t shake out in the same direction. It may be that Fatal Encounters is under-counting American Indians and Alaska Natives, because tribal affiliation is typically not reported in a news story. So, that’s the primary source of data that Fatal Encounters is using, in addition to social media profiles and obituaries. So, to the extent that tribal membership is not listed in any of those places, people of American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry won’t be identified in the data as clearly. So, that’s something we use, some statistical models to try and address. It’s possible and almost certain that we’ve missed some cases of American Indians and Alaska Natives who were killed by police. That said, we do see high levels of inequality. 

MARC STEINER: I think that what you’ve done here is really important in terms of advancing this conversation in our country on what to do to end these police killings, especially in communities of color in this country. I think that it’s a really important piece of work you all have done. 

FRANK EDWARDS: Thank you. 

MARC STEINER: And I appreciate you taking the time today and I look forward to seeing what comes next from what you all do up there in Rutgers. 

FRANK EDWARDS: My pleasure. And just as a final note, we are working on thinking about how tribal sovereignty affects exposure to police violence, and thinking really seriously about the police as a sort of threat to tribal sovereignty, and what happens when we think about policing as a sort of colonial intrusion into tribal lands, and the exertion of police force as an exercise of state power. 

MARC STEINER: I’ll tell you what, you keep us abreast of your work and we’ll keep our viewers abreast of your work. How’s that? 

FRANK EDWARDS: That sounds great. Thank you so much for having me. 

MARC STEINER: Thank you, Frank Edwards. Good to have you with us. Thank you so much and for your work. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.