Where and Why Do Police Kill African Americans?

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If we’re ever going to get a handle on officer-involved killings of African Americans, we must determine the conditions that make such tragedies more or less likely. In a Columbia University Law School working paper posted online in May, scholars Joscha Legewie and Jeffrey Fagan offer some important insights.

After analyzing data from 2013 to 2015, they report the number and rate of police killings of black Americans “is substantially higher in cities with a high level of ethno-racial polarization,” particularly ones that are home to “two equal-sized (racial or ethnic) groups.”

They also found “the black-on-white homicide rate is a significant predictor of officer-involved killings, whereas black-on-black homicides are unrelated to police killings.”

Their overall conclusion is that “group threat continues to be an important driver of officer-related killings.” Fortunately, they also found this threat can be eased by the hiring of more minority officers.

“A diverse police force that proportionally represents the population it serves might not necessarily reduce the number of officer-involved killings directly,” they conclude, “but it mitigates the role of various factors associated with group threat, and thereby eases the tensions between the police and African-American communities.”