Killing by California Law Enforcement: It Is What You Think (Part II)
By Mike Males
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice
The previous blog reported CJCJ’s surprising finding that the communities where people are most likely to be shot to death by law enforcement are not stereotypically mean-street cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Compton, or Salinas, but remote towns like Eureka, Desert Hot Springs, Vista, and Moreno Valley.
However, when it comes to who officers kill, California’s pattern looks like the rest of the country’s. Table 1’s summary of 13 years of officer-involved killings in California shows familiar risks.
Source: California Center for Health Statistics, EPIC (2014)
The major counties with the highest rates of officer-involved killings are Fresno, Riverside, Humboldt, San Bernardino, and Kern. Those with the lowest rates are Placer, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. Alameda County (which includes Oakland) and Los Angeles were both below the state average.African Americans are 3.6 times more likely than whites, and 7.7 times more likely than Asians, to be killed by officers. Latinos are in between. Older teenagers have about the same rate of police killing as adults age 45-54. Rates of police killings peak in the 20s for people of color and the late 30s for non-Latino whites.
From 1960 through 2012, more than 3,000 Californians were killed by law enforcement, according to Center for Health Statistics tabulations from coroner reports, a number that may be understated. Police killings in California peaked in 2005 (99) and 2006 (95), then plunged in 2011 (30) and 2012 (46). The number in 2011 was the lowest since 1980; lower, in fact, than 1960’s toll.
In the deadliest decade on record, 1963-1972, 177 African Americans were killed by law enforcement in California. The toll in 2003-2012 in a much larger population: 123, still 2.7 times the state average.
Of those killed by law enforcement, 97 percent were male, 94 percent were killed by gunfire, three-fourths had a high school education or less, 9 percent were veterans, and 96 percent were U.S. residents. September is the deadliest month.
California’s extreme patterns offer lessons for prevention. One would expect that officers in major cities and counties like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, Placer, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin would face many threatening situations, just as would officers in cities and counties like Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto, San Bernardino, Humboldt, Riverside, and Shasta. Yet, rates of law enforcement killings in the second set of cities and counties average more than eight times higher than those in the first set.
Likewise, on the surface, Eureka and Arcata would seem fairly similar towns, as would (say) Moreno Valley and Santa Clarita. Yet, Eureka and Moreno Valley suffer regular police killings while Arcata and Santa Clarita have recorded none in recent years.
Large differences in police killings by locale may lie in faulty statistics, of course, or in very different (if not readily evident) levels of dangerous citizens, dangerous policing, or both. Vital lessons underlie why apparently comparable communities across California have such dramatically different levels of lethal policing, and those lessons may be key to reducing unnecessary tragedies.
This article was originally published at Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, where author Mike Males is a Senior Research Fellow.