Is inequality really that bad in the US?

Fatal police violence in the United States. Racism, poverty, inequality, violent crime

Is fatal police violence in the USA racially influenced or does the lens of individual and institutional racism hide other important condition factors such as the high level of social violence and the extremely high poverty rate and unequal distribution of social wealth for a country in the affluent north? Is police violence a reflection of social conditions? This spotlight shows that there are no easy answers. The current focus on "race"1 not only leads to distorted images of the enemy, but also stands in the way of a comprehensive treatment of the dynamics of violence.

When talking about police violence, it helps to have a yardstick. In Germany seldom more, mostly less than ten people per year have been shot by police officers in recent decades, in Australia it was just under five. In England and Wales the long-term mean is less than three, in Austria around one and in Finland under 0.5. By contrast, around 1,000 people died each year in the United States as a result of the use of police force. Even taking into account differences in the population sizes of the countries, the death rates in the US are significantly higher than in Europe. Between 25% and 30% of the victims are black, twice as many as would be expected based on the proportion of blacks in the US population.

It would be naive to deny the role of individual and systemic racism in policing, but the prominent racism argument overlooks the sheer scale of police violence, which affects blacks as well as Latinos and whites. Whether black, Latino or white, the violence disproportionately affects the poor. Also not represented in the explanatory pattern of racism for the disproportionate use of deadly police violence against blacks is the subjective world of experience of the police officers who go about their work in a society that is uniquely violent in the Global North. These and a number of other factors play together in the extremely high use of lethal force by police officers in the United States for decades. Only if you look at them in combination, you have a chance to do justice to the complexity of the dynamics. This in turn is a prerequisite for finding adequate strategies for dealing with and ways out of violence.

Deadly police violence as a mirror of a violent society

Police officers are people. As such, they are afraid in relation to the personal threat they perceive in their professional environment. This is determined by many factors. This includes personal prejudices, but also empirically supported data on the crime rate of individual districts and violent crime. The knowledge shared locally by police officers about the more or less aggressive clientele also plays a role. To take a critical look at police violence in the US, it is important to consider that around 15,000 to 17,000 people are murdered in the US every year. In England and Wales, as in Germany, there are just over 600 intentional homicides on a long-term average. In Austria the number fluctuates between 40 and 80. Figure 12 shows that, in general, low levels of social violence are associated with low levels of police violence and high levels of violence are associated with high levels. This is exactly what is to be expected if one assumes that the police in high-violence countries are confronted with heavily armed suspects far more often than in low-violence countries.

In addition to violent crime, there is a much more specific indicator of the threat to which police officers can be exposed in their work: the number of police officers who die a violent death while exercising their profession. Here the differences are once again dramatic. In all cases, with the exception of the USA, the long-term mean was below one. In contrast, in the United States, 51 police officers have been killed on duty every year over the past decade.3

These examples show that fatal police violence can generally be interpreted as a reflection of general social violence and violence directed directly against the police. This rough rule of thumb does not only apply in an international comparison,4 but also within states down to the level of city districts and individual streets.5 Of course, it does not explain in any way why blacks are disproportionately victims.

Deadly Police Violence: Racially Motivated?

The fact that blacks are shot dead by the police far more often in the United States has been reiterated many times6 than would be expected based on their proportion of the population. In a number of cities, the police kill rate of blacks, as measured by the total black population, is even higher than the national homicides rate.7 However, it is premature to deduce from this that the cause of this excessive violence can only be found, or above all, in the individual racism of police officers.

For US police officers, the truth is simple: Blacks are both the most common perpetrators and victims of fatal violent crime. While blacks make up around 13% of the population, they make up around 50% of homicides. However, they also represent around 50% of the perpetrators of fatal violence and over 50% of those arrested (for details on this and the following statements see: Endnote 8)8.

The view of American police officers is also shaped by the fact that police officers are killed disproportionately often by blacks. Between 2008 and 2019, 38% of homicides against police officers were committed by black people.9 That is more than twice as many as would be expected based on their proportion of the population (for details see end note 5). An older study analyzing data for over 20 years concludes that between 1976 and 1998, blacks were significantly overrepresented among the victims of fatal police violence, at 42%. However, 43% of all police officers killed were also killed by black people during the same period. The same study shows that, based on their share of the total number of police forces, black police officers tended to use fatal violence more often than white police officers in these more than 20 years; a racist bias of white or black police forces could not be proven.10

A detailed study of 370 police firearms deployments in Philadelphia shows that black and especially police officers with a Latin American migration background have used firearms significantly more frequently among unarmed black suspects than whites due to a misguided threat perception failure, although the thesis of individual racism is one would suggest the opposite result.11 In 2019, a study showed that blacks, especially black young men, were by far the highest risk of being shot by the police. In the same year there is a post in the same magazine, which has since been withdrawn for political reasons, arguing that the skin color of police officers is not related to the skin color of the victims of fatal police violence.12 The analysis is complicated by the fact that the highest per capita death rates are found in countries with a very low proportion of blacks. New Mexico, Alaska, Oklahoma Arizona and Colorado top the list with more than 6 kills per year and million inhabitants (2015-2019, Washington Post data set).13

These numbers do not speak against the existence of individual or institutional racism in the American police force. But neither do they suggest that the observable differences in the violent behavior of whites and blacks have anything to do with skin color, nor do they suggest that police officers kill for racist motives. It should be noted that despite several decades of research into the connection between racism and police violence in the USA, science has not come to any clear results.14 Despite hundreds of studies, the relationship remains unclear. It is clear that blacks are disproportionately likely to be victims of police violence compared to their proportion of the population. It is therefore important to ask to what extent the majority of police violence directed against blacks can be explained by variables other than racism.

Deadly police violence as violence against the poor

The isolated look at skin color obscures the meaning of poverty, inequality and class, both with regard to (violent) crime and police violence. The role of poverty and other forms of disadvantage for police violence is one of the oldest research questions in police research. Despite many contradictions in detail, the overall results were comparatively clear. In short, socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods have a higher general crime rate as well as a higher rate of violent crime. As a rule, this corresponds to a different type of police procedure and a significantly higher rate of police violence up to and including fatal violence.15 For the USA it is central that poverty and skin color have a high degree of coverage. The poor - and they are often black in the US (see Figure 2) - are significantly overrepresented in certain neighborhoods. This creates a fatal equation: poor = black = criminal / dangerous.

There is no direct information on the socio-economic status of victims of police violence. Feldman (2020) shows in a recent study that the probability of being killed by the police, regardless of skin color, increases with the poverty of the census area. However, 37% of the black population live in the poorest census areas, but only 10% of the white population, which can explain a considerable part of the differences.16 It is also noticeable that the percentage distribution of blacks and whites in the killings by the police (26% and 50% according to the Washington Post data set for the years 2015–2019) is not dissimilar to their share in the population below the poverty rate live (2019: 24% black and 41% white). In particular, the members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups are affected by police violence - from simple coercive measures to fatal violence.17 Fatal police violence, regardless of the skin color of the victims, is "most prevalent in neighborhoods of concentrated deprivation and diminishes in neighborhoods of concentrated privilege."18

These empirical results support the argument that police violence is primarily a means of social control of the poor.19 Skin color plays a role insofar as police forces are most likely to engage in violence in communities, cities and neighborhoods with a high percentage of minorities. However, these places are at the same time those with the generally highest degree of disadvantage. Skin color has a reinforcing effect with regard to the experience of violence by the police, which, however, differs according to ethnic group and interacts with the local socio-economic determinants and the indicators of local violent crime.20

Deadly police violence: a mirror of social conditions

Racism appears to be a straightforward, straightforward answer to why the US police are so common in killing black people. This spotlight shows that such simple answers can usually make up part of the explanation, but are inadequate to the complexity of reality.

The American police force is a mirror of society in three ways: it also reflects social racism,21 an exceptionally violent society and, for a rich country in the global north, an extreme degree of inequality, poverty and social exclusion with all its destructive consequences.22 A way out of violence must not neglect any of the dimensions, an increasingly difficult undertaking in times of extreme social polarization. In addition, there is a specific feature of the USA: that every city and every county has its own police department (more than 15,000 in total), whose chiefs are elected or appointed by city councils and other local institutions. This makes the police an eminently political institution, directly dependent on the local political mainstream.23 At the same time, it limits the possibilities of national politics to intervene, for better or for worse.

First steps should target issues that are as widely agreed as possible. These are rare, but they do exist. Although blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats stand out in many surveys mainly because of extremely different assessments of the problem, the vast majority of them agree on two demands: the increased use of body cams and the demand for a (von investigative authority for police misconduct, which is independent of the public prosecutor's offices. While the former would increase transparency, the latter could create trust and counteract the widespread impunity.24 At least for the first measure, there also seems to be broad approval among the police themselves.25

Download (pdf): Kreuzer, Peter (2020): Deadly police violence in the USA. Racism - Poverty - Inequality - Violent Crime, PRIF Spotlight 17/2020, Frankfurt / M.



References and further reading






Peter Kreuzer is a Senior Researcher at PRIF. He focuses on political violence in the Philippines and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.

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