Language barriers and police homicides

It is true. African Americans are far more likely to be killed by the police than whites, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans.

Until now, the magnitude of that problem has been hard to gauge. In previous years, statistics on homicides (justified or not) by police have been incomplete or speculative.

This year, thanks to The Counted (a project of the Guardian newspaper) we know (or, soon will know) how many were killed by police in the United States. While the year isn’t over, and more than a hundred homicides have yet to be classified by race, we already know more than we did before.

As of today (November 3), 960 people have been killed by police in the US. Of those:

  • White: 442
  • Black: 232
  • Hispanic: 144
  • Asian: 17
  • Native American: 12

The rate, police murders per million population, is:

  • Black: 5.55
  • Hispanic: 2.66
  • White: 2.23
  • Asian: 1.16 (my calculations)
  • Native American: 4.13 (my calculations)

By these numbers, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police.

If we go beyond raw population numbers, and look at arrest numbers, the story changes. By looking at arrest numbers we might be able to gauge the risk faced by a member of a racial or ethnic group per encounter with the police. We have comprehensive FBI arrest data from 2013. We have good data for police homicides for 2015. Not perfect, but a start.

In 2013, according to the FBI, there were 5.80 million arrests of white suspects. According to the Guardian, we are on pace for 596 white people killed by police in 2015. That leads to a rate of 103 whites killed by police for every 1 million white people arrested.

Here is how it looks for other racial or ethnic groups. By race or ethnicity, the (likely) number of police homicides (by race/ethnicity) per 1 million arrests (again, by race/ethnicity):

  • Whites: 103
  • African Americans: 103
  • Hispanics: 122
  • Asians: 186
  • Native Americans: 107

For all races combined, 108 people are killed by cops per 1 million arrests.

Compared to the overall rate, Whites, African Americans, and Native Americans are less likely than average to be killed by the police in the process of being arrested.

By this same comparison, Hispanics are more likely than average to be killed by police in the process of being arrested.

And for Asians, the rate of homicides by police for every 1 million arrests is 70% above average, and more than 80% above the rate for whites or African Americans.

What is going on here?

I think it is safe to say the following:

  • Hispanics and Asians are more likely than the other groups to have limited English skills.
  • While some (but only some) cops speak Spanish, very few police speak an array of Asian languages.

Total speculation, but here it goes: In high-tension situations involving police, where clear communications with officers is most important, some Hispanics and Asians with limited English skills may find themselves at a disadvantage. This may, on occasion, have deadly consequences.

This is not a statement about how the world ‘ought’ to be.  It is a guess about how to explain some unexpected data. 

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