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Jill Terreri Ramos
By Jill Terreri Ramos April 29, 2021

Police violence is a leading cause of death for young Black men, but it doesn’t top the list

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  • A study found that Black men are at disproportionate risk of death from lethal force by law enforcement compared to white men. 
  • For young Black men, lethal force by law enforcement is the seventh leading cause of death, according to academic research and federal mortality data. 
  • Incidents where police used lethal force are likely underreported, and researchers say a more comprehensive accounting is necessary to fully understand the public health impacts of this issue. 

State Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, has responded to the police killings of Black men with legislation to raise New York state’s use of force standard. Parker released a video to promote his bill, and he included this claim on Twitter and Facebook: "Law enforcement violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men and women in the US."

 

Given the public interest in police use of force in Black communities, we wondered if Parker’s claim was accurate. 

Black men at greater risk

We approached his office, and spokesperson Raven Robinson sent us a research article by researchers from Rutgers University, Washington University and the University of Michigan that examined the risk of being killed by police use of force.

The study, based on data from 2013 to 2018, found that "police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States." Among Black men, about one in every 1,000 "can expect to be killed by police" over the course of their lives. The inequality in risk of death is greatest for Black men, the study found. Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than are white men, while Black women are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than are white women.

What the lead author says

We contacted the study’s lead author, Frank Edwards, and he told us that police violence is not the leading cause of death for any group. 

Edwards, an assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark, said that police violence is not the leading cause of death for any age group in the United States. It’s the sixth leading cause for all young men in the 25 to 29 age group, Edwards said. 

For Black men ages 25 to 29, it is the seventh leading cause of death, behind homicide, accidents, suicide, heart disease, HIV and cancer, according to the study and federal data. It is ahead of diabetes.  

The study did not distinguish between the justified or unjustified use of force by police, and it excluded cases that police described as a suicide, those that involved a vehicular crash, or accidents such as overdoses or falls.

What the CDC says 

We also approached the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which studies leading causes of death, though studies have shown that deaths caused by law enforcement are underreported in government databases. 

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Among non-Hispanic Black males ages 15-24, deaths due to use of lethal force by law enforcement would rank as the seventh leading cause of death in 2019, the most recent data available, according to CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard. 

Among non-Hispanic Black women ages 15 to 24, there were four deaths due to use of lethal force by law enforcement in 2019. The count is low, and is unstable year to year, according to the CDC. 

Other studies

Researchers who study lethal use of force by law enforcement caution that there is no national data collection system. As a result, there is likely an underreporting of incidents in which police actions resulted in deaths, according to the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Study authors also said that the database it relied on, Fatal Encounters, contains more police-related deaths than the CDC’s database, the National Vital Statistics System.  

Researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health also found that in the CDC database, misclassification of deaths involving police happen more in instances when the death was caused by something other than a gun, or if it happened in a low-income county.  

Dr. Anthony Bui, a pediatric resident at University of Washington, is co-author of a 2018 study examining the years of life lost due to encounters with law enforcement. 

Bui told PolitiFact that young Black men and women are disproportionately impacted by police violence. His study found that years of life lost from encounters with law enforcement disproportionately impacts young people, and the young people affected are disproportionately people of color. 

Our ruling

Parker called police violence the leading cause of death for young Black men and women. His office pointed to a study that it said backed the claim.

It didn't.

The study’s lead author said that police violence is not the leading cause of death for any age group in the United States, though Black men and women are disproportionately impacted. 

CDC data back this up. 

Experts would like to see better official reporting of deaths caused by law enforcement. And research has shown that Black people are more affected by police violence. But no evidence supports Parker’s claim. If he had called police use of force a leading cause of deaths among young Black men, our ruling would not have been so clear cut. But he called it the leading cause.

We rate his claim False. 

 

Our Sources

Twitter, tweet, @SenatorParker, 11:50 a.m., April 14, 2021. 

Email interview, Sen. Kevin Parker spokesperson, Raven Robinson, April 14, 2021.  

New York State Senate Bill S. 2983, "Relates to the justification for the use of force in a homicide by a peace officer or police officer," Jan. 26, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2021. 

PNAS, research article, "Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex," Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito, August 20, 2019. Accessed April 14, 2021. 

Rutgers Today, news release, "Police Use of Fatal Force Identified as a Leading Cause of Death in Young Men," Aug. 8. 2019. Accessed April 14, 2021. 

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, "Racial inequity in fatal US police shootings, 2015–2020," Elle Lett, et. al., Oct. 27, 2020. Accessed April 20, 2021

Yale News, news release, "Racial disparity in police shootings unchanged over 5 years," Oct. 27, 2020. Accessed April 20, 2021. 

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, "Years of life lost due to encounters with law enforcement in the USA, 2015–2016," Anthony L. Bui, Matthew M. Coates, Ellicott C. Matthay, May 7, 2018. Accessed April 21, 2021.

Email interview, Anthony L. Bui, MD, resident physician, University of Washington Department of Pediatrics, April 21, 2021. 

Email interview, Frank Edwards, PhD, assistant professor, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers - Newark, April 21, 2021. 

PolitiFact, "Juan Williams: No. 1 cause of death for African-American males 15-34 is murder," Aug. 24, 2014. Accessed April 22, 2021. 

Email interview, Courtney N. Lenard, senior press officer, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Health Communication and Science Office, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 23, 2021. 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WISQARS, Fatal Injury Reports, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2021.  

African American Policy Forum, report, "Say Her Name, Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women," July 2015. Accessed April 25, 2021. 

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "Using Public Health Data to Monitor Killings by Law Enforcement in the United States," doctoral dissertation, Justin M. Feldman, 2018. Accessed April 25, 2021. 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mortality data, 2015, cause of death for Black males, 25-29, Sept. 29, 2017. Accessed April 26, 2021.

Washington Post, "Police shootings are a leading cause of death for young American men, new research shows," Aug. 8, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2021. 

Medical News Today, "Police violence: Physical and mental health impacts on Black Americans," June 22, 2020. Accessed April 25, 2021. 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, "Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 34 States, Four California Counties, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, 2017," Dec. 4, 2020. Accessed April 29, 2021. 

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Police violence is a leading cause of death for young Black men, but it doesn’t top the list

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