Wider Effects of Police Killings in Minority Neighborhoods

By ·June 24, 2020
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

The Issue:

High-profile officer-involved killings of unarmed minorities have sparked nationwide protests and raised important questions about the appropriate role of law enforcement in local communities. These events comprise just a handful of the roughly one thousand officer-involved killings that occur each year in the United States. There is growing evidence that acts of police violence may have widespread impacts that go well beyond the individuals involved and their immediate families, negatively affecting academic achievement, school attendance and crime reporting in the neighborhoods where they occur.

Negative effects on educational performance are driven by the impact on Black and Hispanic students following the killing of an individual who is also part of a minority group.

The Facts:

  • Roughly 1,000 people are killed by American law enforcement officers each year. While whites make up the majority of those killed, these incidents disproportionately involve African-Americans and Hispanics relative to their share of the U.S. population. The number of fatal shootings by the police has been remarkably stable at close to a thousand per year, as tracked by the Washington Post since 2015. Nearly half of the people killed by police in 2019 were Black or Hispanic and about 40% were not armed with a gun. Recent research suggests that roughly one in 1,000 Black men and one in 2,000 Hispanic men will be killed by police. Black men are nearly 2.5 times more likely than white men to die at the hands of law enforcement. Young Black men face particularly high risks with police violence representing their sixth leading cause of death (behind accidents, suicides, other homicides, heart disease and cancer). At the same time, lethal shootings comprise a tiny fraction of all use of force incidents. Nearly a million people experienced nonfatal threats or use of force during contacts with police in 2015 for instance, according to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (see Table 18).
  • Officers involved in police killings went unprosecuted in nearly all cases. Judicial precedence grants law enforcement officers wide latitude in employing force against civilians and department procedures for handling and reporting these incidents are often far from comprehensive. In one large urban county I studied just one out of over 600 incidents resulted in criminal charges against police. Nationally, researchers found 31 cases in which police officers were arrested for murder or nonnegligent manslaughter between 2005 and 2011. This amounts to one-half of one-percent of all officer-involved killings during that period. 
  • The impacts of police violence can extend beyond the direct victims to nearby high school students. Students who live close to a police killing during high school are estimated to be 2.5% less likely to graduate from high school and 2% less likely to enroll in college than students from the same neighborhood who live farther from the shooting. To estimate these effects, I analyzed detailed data for over 600 officer-involved killings and more than 700,000 public high school students in a large, urban county. Because the data includes home addresses and tracks student performance over time, I am able to compare how achievement changes after a killing for students who lived close to the incident relative to students in the same neighborhood who lived slightly farther away. I find that students living within a half a mile of a killing are more likely to miss school the following day and experience significant decreases in GPA lasting several semesters. The highly localized effect may be due to the fact that more than 80 percent of incidents went unreported in area newspapers. Nearby students are estimated to be 15% more likely to be diagnosed with emotional disturbance  - a chronic learning disability associated with PTSD and depression - and twice as likely to report feeling unsafe in their neighborhood.
  • The effects of police killings on academic performance in my analysis are driven entirely by effects on Black and Hispanic students in response to police killings of other underrepresented minorities. I find no significant impact on white or Asian students, nor do I find a significant impact for police killings of white or Asian individuals. These racial differences cannot be explained by other factors like the neighborhoods where killings occur, media coverage or socioeconomic background. Even taking all of these factors into account, I continue to find significant differences in effects based on the race of the student and of the person killed. The chart shows the estimated effects on educational attainment by student race. For Black and Hispanic students, I find large, negative impacts on cumulative GPA, high school completion and college enrollment with very little margin of error, whereas for white and Asian students all the estimated effects are near zero.
  • The adverse effects on academic performance are largest for police killings of unarmed minorities. I find that police killings of individuals that were completely unarmed (as described in District Attorney incident reports) lead to decreases in GPA that are about twice as large as police killings of individuals that were armed with a gun. This suggests that students are not responding to those events with the most gunfire or the largest shootouts but instead to those incidents in which the use of lethal force may have been least warranted. In a similar fashion, I find that the effects of gun-related criminal homicides on GPA are only half as large as those for police killings and do not vary with the race of the person killed.
  • The pattern of effects is consistent with longstanding concerns expressed by minorities about how their neighborhoods are policed. The Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, reported the “widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection.” More recent national surveys, such as this one from 2015, find that a vast majority of Black and Hispanic individuals believe that police “deal more roughly with members of minority groups” and that these individuals are far more likely than white counterparts to believe that police violence is a serious issue. As national protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor continue to demonstrate, police killings of unarmed minorities may have negative consequences for social cohesion and institutional trust, with much of the costs borne by underrepresented groups.

What this Means:

The results of my analysis suggest that police violence has pervasive effects on minority communities, going beyond the people directly affected. I estimate that each police killing in the sample caused three students of color, on average, to drop out of high school. As lethal shootings comprise just a small part of the larger landscape of use of force incidents, this likely underestimates the total educational spillovers of aggressive policing. These findings have important implications for racial equity in education. Recent research has found that black and white children growing up in the same neighborhood and socioeconomic class have very different life outcomes. The results documented here suggest that law enforcement and its deleterious impact on minority education may play an important role in explaining this phenomenon.

  • Editor's note: The analysis in this memo is based on Ang, Desmond. "The Effects of Police Violence on Inner-City Students." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP20-016, June 2020.

  • Topics:

    Crime and Criminal Justice / Racial Discrimination
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