Police Shootings: How Bad Are Things?

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.

 

If Prison Were a Disease, How Bad Would It Be?

 

Epistemic status: highly uncertain

As of 2013, 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US state and federal prisons and county jails.

The majority of these people –about 60% — are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses such as theft, drugs, or public order violations.

How bad is this, in terms of years of life lost?  How much damage is due to being imprisoned?  (ETA: of course, in this context, I am only looking at the harms of prisons, not the benefits due to the deterrent effect of prisons, or the harms of crime. This should not be read as a claim that prison has zero deterrent effect!)

One article attempts to quantify:

African American males can expect to spend 3.09 years lifetime in prison, on average, and Hispanic and Caucasian males will spend on average 1.06 and 0.50 years, respectively.

Comparing life expectancies of people who have and have not gone to prison, as if “prison” were a disability, they compute that white males lose 19,665 person-years of life to prison per 100,000, black males lose 139,507 person-years, and Hispanic males lose 45,766 person-years.

For comparison purposes, here is a table of person-years of life lost to the most common diseases in the US.  Cancer, the top killer, only appears to cost 2882 person-years of life per 100,000.  All causes together only cost 38,211 person-years of life per 100,000.

These numbers are really weird.  They would place prison as being responsible for nearly half of all person-years of life lost.  That would be an utterly shocking result. I’m skeptical.

(ETA: it turns out that the authors of this study were looking at a stock, not a flow, of person-years lost to prison, as Ben notes below. Do not use this study’s numbers to estimate the harms of prison, they don’t make a lot of sense.)

Epidemiologist Ernest Drucker, in his book A Plague of Prisonstried to quantify the years of life lost to imprisonment for drug offenses in New York State.   He estimated a total of 360,000 years of life in prison between 1973 and 2008. This isn’t a fair comparison to diseases, though, because a year living in prison is not as bad as being dead, and prison has harms outside the time actually spent in prison.  If we were to count years in prison as “years of life lost”, however, then, given that there are roughly 19 million people in New York, drug offenses alone cost 55 person-years of life per 100,000, which is a more modest number.  

A study of the dose-response effect of years of prison on mortality found that each additional year in prison (compared to being released on parole) produced a 2-year decline in life expectancy.  For comparison purposes, smokers lose on average 11-12 years of life expectancy compared to nonsmokers.  Getting a diagnosis of colon cancer means losing about 10 years of life expectancy, while getting a diagnosis of testicular cancer means losing 1.3 years of life expectancy.

If we combine these numbers, assume each year in prison is roughly equivalent to two years of life lost, then New York State’s drug incarceration is responsible for about 110 person-years of life per 100,000, which is about half the death rate due to HIV.  This is a more believable number, though it would still make the list of the top 15 causes of death by years of life lost. But it’s only for drug incarceration, which is responsible for only about 1/5 of all incarceration.

If we look at the total number of people incarcerated in New York State, or 77,227, we get an estimated 810 person-years of life lost to prison in New York per 100,000 population, which is more than the national YLL of homicide.  And if we extrapolate to the full 2,220,300 Americans incarcerated, assume 2 years of life lost per year in prison, we get a rate of person-years of life lost due to prison per 100,000 population of 1396, which would make “prison”, if it counted as a cause of death, the sixth worst public health problem in terms of person-years of life lost.

The deadliness of prison, depending on which numbers you use, seems to range from “truly implausibly bad” to “one of the most serious public health problems in America.”

The leading causes of death among former inmates are drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide; the highest elevated risks, at 10-12x the population expected rates, were drug overdose and homicide, especially at 0-2 weeks after release. Prison puts people in more danger than they were before.

Some suggested mechanisms for why prison is so dangerous include poor conditions such as overcrowding that expose prisoners to infectious disease; violence within prisons; poor medical care inside prisons; and increased risky behaviors, due to trauma or psychological harm or lack of material opportunities for ex-cons.

For US-centric and present-day-centric utilitarian calculations, prison looks really, really bad. Reducing the prison population seems potentially important on a level comparable to working on Big Problems like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, car accidents, etc.

If nobody were imprisoned for drug crimes, then (aside from any additional risks incurred from the resulting increased drug use) the drop in incarceration alone would save more American lives than eradicating HIV from the US today.