Epistemic Status: rough, back-of-envelope
How many people are killed by police in the US? How does this compare to death rates from other causes?
In 2015, the Washington Post counted 990 Americans shot by police, the Guardian counted 1146 killed, and Fatal Encounters reported 1357, while the FBI and BJS’s 7-year average number of police killings per year were 418 and 380, respectively.
In 2012, an estimated 55,400 people were killed or hospitalized by police; 1 in 291 stops or arrests resulted in hospital-treated injury or death. 1063 suffered fatal injuries. Beatings were by far the most common cause of injury, while shooting was the most common cause of death.
I’m inclined to believe the reporters’ numbers over the FBI and BJS’s numbers, and estimate something like 1000-1500 police killings a year, and tens of thousands of police-caused hospitalizations a year.
Comparison to Total Homicides
According to the CDC, there were 15,809 homicides in America in 2014, and 2.1 million emergency room visits for assault in 2011.
This means that 5-10% of all homicides are committed by police. 3% of all severe assaults are committed by police.
There are about 765,000 police in the US. There are about 152 million men, who commit about 90% of homicides; there were 9972 male homicide perpetrators in 2010. Thus, roughly, a policeman is 30x as likely to kill you as a randomly chosen man is.
Breakdown by Race
According to the Washington Post, 48% of people killed by police are white, while 25% were black. (The remainder were of a different or unknown race.) This represents an overrepresentation of black people and underrepresentation of white people, since the US is 62% white and 13% black. Black people are 2.5x as likely as white people to be killed by police.
There’s some research showing that there is no racial disparity in the rate of police killing per encounter, but researching “per encounter” rates of violence hides a lot under the rug. If police are biased against black people, they are more likely to “encounter” them, looking for a reason to arrest them, and thus are more likely to escalate to violence. On the other hand, black people commit more crimes (per population) than white people. Teasing out what constitutes police bias and what constitutes justifiable increased policing intensity is a tough subject. What’s not in doubt is that the burden of police killings falls disproportionately on black people.
Comparison to Lynching
While this may seem an inflammatory comparison, a lynching, like a police killing, is an extrajudicial killing of a suspected or alleged criminal.
According to the Tuskegee Institute, the year with the highest number of lynchings, 1892, saw 61 whites lynched and 161 blacks lynched.
Given that the US population in 1892 was only about 20% of its current size, this means that, adjusted for population, about as many people are killed by police today as were lynched in the 1890s.
Looking at black people specifically, who were 12% of the US population in 1890, just as they are today, the risk of being lynched for a black person was about twice as high in the 1890s than the risk of being shot by a cop for a black person is today. Lynchings were notably more skewed towards black people than police shootings are.
Comparison to Police States
There is absolutely no comparison in magnitude between anything happening in the US criminal justice system and Stalin’s Great Purge, which killed between 600,000 and 1.2 million people, out of a population of roughly 100 million.
As we noticed with hate crimes, looking at serious problems of violence in the US can put into perspective how terrifyingly, unimaginably bad Hitler and Stalin were. Our problems are not trivial, but totalitarian regimes are…a fundamentally different kind of thing.
Augusto Pinochet had an estimated 40,018 people killed, tortured, or forcibly disappeared between 1973 and 1990, or an estimated 2354 per year, out of a population of 10-13 million. His regime was at least 50x as deadly as US police are.
South Africa under apartheid tried and executed about 134 political prisoners between 1961 and 1989, which is not quite comparable to police killings, but is a lower rate than exists in the US. However, South African “deaths in police custody” in 1997-2004, immediately after apartheid, averaged 434 deaths a year, while 763 people were killed by the apartheid government’s police in 1985, an unusually violent year. Police killings in apartheid South Africa were roughly 5x as common per population as they are in the present-day US, while police killings in 1990’s South Africa were roughly 2.5x as common as they are in the present-day US.
According to a recent human rights agency’s report, 323 people have died in Egyptian prison facilities since 2013 after the recent coup, as well as 624 protesters killed. This is comparable to the number of police killings in the US.
245 people were killed by Venezuelan security and police forces in 2015; per population, this is about twice as many as police killings in America.
Thailand’s war on drugs, which involved 2800 extrajudicial killings in the first three months after it began in 2003, is at least 10x as deadly as police in America are.
200 people died in police custody last year in Russia, about half the rate of police shootings in America per population.
The US is generally, but not always, less deadly to its citizens than typical authoritarian regimes. The US has similar rates of death due to police as present-day South Africa, Russia, Venezuela, and Egypt.
Comparisons to other causes of death
Like all kinds of homicide, the number of police homicides pales in comparison to the number of deaths due to disease. Cancer kills more than hundreds of times as many people per year than police do. Suicide kills 30-40x as many. Infant mortality kills more than 15 times as many. HIV kills six times as many people. Doctors and medical researchers are still on the front lines against death.
And prison itself probably causes quite a bit more humanitarian damage than police killings do.
However, justice matters too. An innocent person killed by police is wronged, in a way that a person who succumbs to a disease is not. Police killings count towards the vaguely defined but important category of “evidence that we don’t live in a free and just society”, in the same way that torture, detention without trial, mass surveillance, and other civil liberties violations do.