Police killings in the USA

The current protests in the USA made me curious to take a look at police killing rates compared to other countries. Wikipedia summarizes available statistics for most recent years, and I did some spot checks of the primary sources. The first graph shows a league table for high income countries with available data (this was all in the range 2017-2019).

For most recent year available, the US rate per 10 million population is 17 times higher than that for Australia and 57 times higher than that of United Kingdom. The police killed no-one in Switzerland in 2018 so the US ratio is infinite. The second graph breaks down US police killings by race (data for 2018 from Statistica.com).

The rate at which US blacks are killed by police is higher than the rate at which Iraqis are killed by police, and a similar magnitude to police killings in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But even the rates for US whites and US “Other” (mainly Asian) are also substantially higher than the rates of any of the other high income countries shown.

I haven’t done any systematic review of factors involved in the high US rates, but did come across an interesting article by a US Professor of Criminal Justice, which identified a number of factors that likely play key roles in the very high rates of US police killings.  These were:

  • Very high rates of gun ownership in the USA compared to other countries. In an earlier post, I found that there were 150 guns per 100 adults in the USA, compared to less than 9 per 100 for the rest of the world on average.
  • Racism (as evidenced by the high number of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans)
  • The localism of US policing with 15,500 separate municipal and county police forces (resulting in under-resourcing and staffing, inadequate disciplinary procedures and training)
  • Limited finances for local police often result in reliance on fines and asset seizure by police, resulting in more involuntary encounters with police.
  • Local policing results in high killing rates in small towns (25% of killings were in towns with fewer than 25,000 people)
  • Different standards for the use of deadly force. US police can use deadly force when they “reasonably” perceive imminent danger. In Europe, deadly force can only be used when “absolutely necessary” to achieve a lawful purpose and must be proportionate to the threat, with verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital body parts where possible.
  • Compared to European countries where police training usually takes 2-3 years, the average recruit in the USA spends 19 weeks in training, with much more emphasis on training to use force than in conflict de-escalation.

The author also speculated that social and economic deprivation and injustice (and the lack of social safety nets), inadequate mental health care and intense desire to avoid harsh imprisonment may also result in higher levels of aggression in encounters by Americans with police.

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