Facts and Fallacies About Police Killings in the United States

Mathieu Deflem
University of South Carolina  

This paper is written by Mathieu Deflem as part of a longer article, co-authored with the late G. David Curry, about the dialectics of law and violence.  
Reference: G. David Curry and Mathieu Deflem. 2022. "Law and Violence." In Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict, Third Edition, edited by Lester R. Kurtz. Elsevier.

The year of the coronavirus pandemic has witnessed a striking increase in concerns over the police use of force, especially deadly force. Public response has ironically also involved protest activities against police violence that have at times devolved into riots, disorder, and violence. Indeed, although originally driven by concerns over police violence following the videotaped police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the unrests from June 2020 onwards considerably evolved and took on many different guises.

Particularly following various instances of videotaped and much discussed cases of police killings, the issue of the police use of deadly force has become a matter much more discussed among the public at large and in the news media precisely because and when these deadly instances of police violence were captured on video. The recording of police conduct and misconduct is today more likely than ever before because of the ubiquity of smart phones. 
In the United States, the publicity of police killings and other problematic police conduct historically recalls the impact of the photographed and televised police violence during the Birmingham unrests of May 1963, when police used dogs and fire hoses were used to physically attack high school students walking in a demonstration. Since then, instances of visual recordings of police violence have increased exponentially. Among the most discussed and impactful of these incidents until the Floyd killing, mention can be made of the Rodney King beating in March 1991 and, in more recent years, the police killings of Eric Garner in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014, and Walter Scott in North Charleston in April 2015. The publicity given to such cases may not present an accurate view, however, because the vast majority of police killings receive very little if any attention, as the following overview of the problem will demonstrate.

The police function is arguably more decentralized in the United States than in any other country in the world. No less than an estimated 18,000 police agencies exist in the US, the vast majority of them at the local level. No central unified system of data collection exists to chart instances of police killings in the United States. Nonetheless, relying on the best available data from private and public sources, certain discernable patterns emerge.

The rate of police killings in the United States has generally decreased over the last half-century, the sharpest drop occurring between the late 1960s and early 1980s. However, most recent years, since the 2010s, have seen relatively steady levels of police killings, with many variations and differences among racial and other groups. Statistics reveal that the number of police killings have remained relatively stable between 2015 and 2020. Although the estimates differ, police in the United States killed at least about 1,000 people each year over the course of these five recent years.

Most people killed by police in the United States are white, but the rate of police killings is disproportionately higher for Blacks and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics. Taking into account racial groups’ relative share in the population (and all other conditions held constant), the chance of being killed by police is at least two times higher for Blacks than for Whites. Per one million people, the chance of being killed by police is presently estimated to be 2.5 for Whites, 3.8 for Hispanics, and 6.6 for Blacks. 
Between 2015 and 2020, an annual average of some 400 people killed by police are White, more than 200 are Black, some 150 are Hispanic, and the rest are of another or unknown racial/ethnic group. Native Americans are most at risk of being killed by police, with a rate that is about 3.1 higher than for Whites. With a small share in the total population, the absolute number of Native Americans killed by police is about 25 to 30 a year. Men make up the vast majority of victims of police killings, about 95% for the period 2015-2020. The majority of victims are armed, from anywhere between 70% to 85% since 2015. The number of police killed in the line of duty is about 150 annually in these years.

Besides race and ethnicity, there are many other variations in police killings across the United States and the many police agencies that are involved. In large metropolitan areas, police killings are relatively high, but several differences across cities exist. Police killings in cities have decreased over the past decade, while they have increased in suburban and rural areas. 
Police killings across cities are not shown to be related to local levels of violent crime. Among the 50 largest cities in the United States, New York City is estimated to have among the lowest rates of police killings, whereas St. Louis, Missouri has the highest rate. Variations between states are revealed as well. By example, data show that police killings are six times more likely in Oklahoma than in Georgia.

Scholarship on the police use of deadly force is divided over the conditions that drive observed levels and trends of police killings, especially to account for the observed differences between racial groups. What is hereby often overlooked is that the single most uncontestable finding on police killings is that both the number and rate of people killed by police is much higher in the United States than in any comparable country in the world. 
While the chance of being killed by police is always small, the differences that exist in the United States among racial groups, for example, are dwarfed by the differences between police killings in the US and other wealthy nations. The numbers in the United States are from anywhere between 3 to 60 times higher than in other capitalist democracies. On the basis of such cross-national evidence, the notion should be entertained that the relatively high level of police killings in the United States relates to the country’s overall level of violence, which is indeed much higher than in other comparable countries. This finding would suggest that the problem of police killings in the United States is primarily a matter of violence, rather than race and other variables. 

In sum, available evidence indicates that:

  • The vast majority of police killings receive very little if any attention;
  • Of the 1,000 people annually killed by police in recent years, about 400 are white, 200 Black, and 150 Hispanic;
  • The chance of being killed by police is always very small, for every citizen; 
  • The majority of the victims of police killings are armed (between 70% to 85%);
  • The rate of police killings in the United States has fallen during the latter half of the 20th century; 
  • Police killing rates vary widely across U.S. cities and states; 
  • By far the most incontestable finding (and perhaps the least discussed) is that both the number and rate of people killed by police is much higher in the United States than in any other comparable country in the world. 
  • Informed theoretical models to account for variations in police killings are missing.

For the complete paper from which the above excerpt is drawn, see "Law and Violence".

Selected Resources

Mapping Police Violence website 

The Marshall Project: Police Killings 

Statista: Statistics on Police Killings

Wikipedia: List of Killings by Law Enforcement

See also other writings by Deflem on law and policing.