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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

BU Finds Police Shootings Reflect Structural Racism

A new study led by Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researchers finds states with a greater degree of structural racism, particularly residential segregation, have higher racial disparities in fatal police shootings of unarmed victims.

Published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, this is the first study to examine the relationship between structural racism and racial disparities in fatal police shootings at the state level. Even controlling for rates of arrest, the researchers found a strong association between the racial disparity in unarmed fatal police shootings and a range of structural racism indicators, with residential segregation showing the most pronounced association.

“The problem of police killings of unarmed Black victims should not be viewed merely as a problem of flawed action on the part of individual police officers, but more as a consequence of the broader problem of structural racism,” says senior author Dr. Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences at BUSPH. “Unjustified homicide by police should be added to the long list of the public health consequences of societal racism.”

The study used combined data on fatal police shootings of victims not known to be armed from January 1, 2013 through June 30, 2017, obtained from the Mapping Police Violence Project database, the most reliable source of data on police shootings.

For every 10-point increase in the state racism index, the researchers saw a 24 percent increase in the ratio of police shootings of unarmed victims. Looking at segregation alone, the researchers found the most dramatic association: for every 10 point increase in the state racial segregation index, there was a 67 percent increase in the state’s ratio of police shootings of unarmed Black victims to unarmed White victims.

The association between levels of structural racism and the racial disparity in the shooting of unarmed victims by police held even after controlling for the rate of arrests of Black individuals in a state, and for the overall rate of fatal police shootings of Black victims. “This suggests that the higher rates of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black victims are not merely a result of more interactions between police officers and Black suspects,” says co-author Ms. Anita Knopov, a pre-doctoral fellow at SPH. “Instead, our results indicate that in some states there is a systematically different response based on the race of the suspect.”

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