In a first-of-its-kind investigation, USA Today found that black people in the U.S. have been killed in police chases at a rate nearly three times higher than anyone else. The rub is that this included both those fleeing law enforcement and innocent bystanders. The outlet was able to thoroughly and meticulously illustrate yet another example of long-standing and deadly inequality in U.S. policing.
Pursuits are among the most dangerous police activities. They have killed more than 6,200 people since 1999. Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but are 28 percent of those killed in pursuits whose race was known.
Among the findings (which strongly confirm a disparity and a likely bias in policing):
- Blacks have been killed at a disproportionate rate in pursuits every year since 1999. On average, 90 black people were killed each year in police chases, nearly double what would be expected based on their percentage of the population.
- Deadly pursuits of black drivers were twice as likely to start over minor offenses or nonviolent crimes. In 2013 and 2014, nearly every deadly pursuit triggered by an illegally tinted window, a seat belt violation or the smell of marijuana involved a black driver.
- Black people were more likely than whites to be chased in more crowded urban areas, during peak traffic hours and with passengers in their cars, all factors that can increase the danger to innocent bystanders. Chases of black motorists were about 70 percent more likely to wind up killing a bystander.
USA Today examined federal records for 5,300 fatal pursuits since 1999, when the government started tracking the races of people killed in car crashes. USA Today also delved deeper into 702 chases in 2013 and 2014, reviewing thousands of pages of police documents and hours of video of pursuits across the nation.
The racially lopsided death toll mirrors almost exactly the disparity in police shooting deaths. Yet police chases have remained largely unexplored, even as the Justice Department moves to track more carefully other types of deadly interactions with the police.
The outlet shared its findings with nearly a dozen of the nation’s leading researchers on race and policing as well as police department officials, who predictably claimed that race is not a factor.
“This is not giving someone a traffic ticket. This is people dying,” said Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice. “The cost of having small disparities is huge because you’re ending up with loss of life.”
Police officials, including those from the Michigan State Police, said that a suspect’s race has no impact on officers’ decision to pursue. Instead, they suggested that any disparity was likely a by-product of police spending more time in high-crime neighborhoods.
The news organization even analyzed fatal pursuits in the daytime versus night, when police are not able to see someone’s skin color as clearly. It found that in daylight, 31 percent of the drivers involved in deadly police chases were black, but in darkness, 21 percent of the drivers in deadly chases were black.
Whatever its causes, the disparity is clear:
For every 100,000 black people in the United States, 4 were killed in police chases over the 17 years between 1999 and 2015.
For every 100,000 people who are not black, 1.5 were killed.
Read more of this provocative and important report at USA Today.