In the months since a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a lot of time and energy has been spent pondering the uncomfortable question of whether police officers are too quick to kill people of color.
The lack of data either way means much of the debate has relied on anecdotes, over-generalization and stereotypes. But in California at least, there are good, hard numbers from which to draw conclusions – and it doesn’t look good for those who doubt that race is a factor in the use of deadly force.
While African Americans make up only 6.6 percent of the Golden State’s population, they constitute 20.8 percent – or 222 – of the 1,068 people killed while in the process of being arrested from 2004 to early 2014.
That number comes from “death in custody” reports that the state’s law enforcement agencies provide to the California Attorney General’s Office. It includes people who die from natural causes while serving out criminal sentences as well as those who are killed during that dangerous time of initial police contact, when so many things can go terribly wrong.
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The figure is probably not shocking to many people, least of all African Americans. We already know that African American men are much more likely to be incarcerated than men of other races, and represent nearly 30 percent of the state’s prison population.
This isn’t just a black issue. Latinos are also killed during arrest at a higher rate, though not nearly as out of proportion as African Americans. Latinos account for 38.4 percent of the state’s population but 41.5 percent of those killed. For people described as white, that rate is 31.8 percent, though they account for 39 percent of the state’s population.
This data ought to be regularly shared with the public. Currently it is not, and The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board waited months to receive this information after a request.
However, Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, has recognized the importance of good data in the wake of widespread protest over use of deadly force. She has since agreed to make this data available to the public, as well as convene discussions between law enforcement and the community. No word yet when these two things will come to pass.
But this is a good reminder that any discussion would be benefit not only from up-to-date death in custody data, (hint-hint) but with more details about each case than are currently reported by police agencies, specifically whether the person killed was armed or had been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness.
The public wants more scrutiny of the deadly contacts between the public and police, and lawmakers have responded with legislation such as Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s AB 86, which would create an independent review panel within the California Department of Justice to examine both use of force and deaths in custody.
Without hard facts and figures that can dispassionately convey the intersection of race and deadly use of force, public debates on this topic aren’t likely to move past polemic and entrenchment.
BY THE NUMBERS
Killed during process of arrest by race – 2004 to first quarter 2014
Source: California Attorney General’s Office