Skip to main content

A Conversation With the Researcher Behind the Latest Study on Racial Disparities in Police Killings

Pacific Standard spoke with James Buehler about his research, which shows black and Hispanic men are indeed more likely than whites to be shot and killed by police.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr)

In July, a study from Harvard University economist Roland Fryer came to an unexpected conclusion: Police officers were no more likely to use lethal force against African Americans than they would against whites in certain, high-risk situations. The finding ran counter to a national narrative fueled by a string of widely publicized police killings of (often unarmed) black men. James Buehler, a clinical professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, thought there might be more to the story.

Using national statistics to conduct a more comprehensive analysis of deaths caused by police, Buehler found that black men are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than white men; for Hispanic men, the rate is nearly double that of whites. Pacific Standard spoke with Buehler to find out how this new finding squares with Fryer’s study, and what to make of the emerging data on police killings.

How did this study come about?

I was intrigued by the findings from the Fryer study. It was a very careful and thorough study, and it came out at a time when there was a lot of attention [paid] to the issue of people being killed by police during encounters.

Given situations where there are very high-risk encounters — like a situation where a police officer was being attacked or somebody was interfering with the efforts of a police officer to make an arrest — [Fryer] did not find a difference in the use of lethal force by race or ethnicity. I think as that finding got more popularized, there was a danger that people would say, “Well there’s really no racial or ethnic difference in the risk of these events.” I took a quick look at some of the prior literature that had been written about this, [which] showed that, when you look at it in terms of the entire population, there have been previous observations of disparities. I simply did a quick update on some of that prior work.

When you look at it in terms of the number of deaths based on vital statistics or death certificate data, there are substantial differences in the rate of legal intervention deaths, when you express it as the number of deaths per so many people in the population at large, with black men having a rate that’s almost three times that of whites, and Hispanic men having a rate that’s intermediate. Really, my interest was in not letting that part of the story be forgotten.

How do the data sources between your study and Fryer’s differ, and what does that mean for how the results should be interpreted?

In a sense my study and Fryer’s study asked and answered different questions. If you think about the entire sequence of events that might lead somebody to be killed by a police officer in the line of duty, it starts with whether or not an individual is engaged in an activity that might attract police attention, or it might include whether or not the police stop somebody or make an arrest. It also includes perhaps differences in the circumstances surrounding that encounter, and then it includes the outcome of that encounter: whether lethal intervention — lethal force — is used and whether that actually results in somebody being killed.

Looking at it at that level, it demonstrates the net effect of all the different reasons why somebody may be killed by a police officer. When you look at it from that perspective, for reasons that my study doesn’t begin to explain, you see these [racial] differences. Some people have wanted to present my study as a counterpoint to [Fryer’s] — it’s not really, we’re doing something different. His study was really predicated on studying interactions between citizens and police. Most of his study focused on non-lethal outcomes: whether somebody felt the police was verbally abusive or used physical force short of lethal force. But to the extent that he did look at lethal force he didn’t start with deaths; he started with police encounters that are very high risk, very dangerous: a situation where a police officer is being attacked or somebody is evading arrest or interfering with an arrest. In that narrower part of the spectrum, in the one city where he was able to get the data to study that, which was Houston, he didn’t see a difference.

I wanted to be sure people didn’t confuse the two questions. I have a broader interest in public health and health disparities, and to me the important question is, at the larger level, do we see these disparities? It’s important to demonstrate those differences, and then it forces the broader question: What’s contributing to that?

Your study built off of existing data on racial disparities in police killings, but is there anything you found particularly surprising about your findings that adds to the conversation?

The one study that I reference in my paper that was published in 2002 mainly looked at black and white differences. One thing that wasn’t part of that study published almost 14 years ago was that they didn’t include American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Because the American Indian and Alaskan Native population is much smaller than others, they represent a small percentage of the total deaths, but their rate was comparable to that of blacks, which I think was noteworthy.

Why might that be?

If you step back and look just broadly at rates of poverty by race and ethnicity, the disparity in rates of poverty almost exactly mirror the disparities that you see with this particular type of legal intervention death. Again, as someone whose role in public health is broader, that’s not a surprise. We know that poverty is associated with disparities in many different health outcomes including injuries, and there is an association between crime and poverty. In addition to whatever concerns there are about racial prejudice and bias, the fact that this pattern of disparity in legal intervention deaths is very similar to that of disparities in poverty is important to draw out, because it helps us to look back to what are really the root causes of this disparity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.