USA Today Investigation Finds that Blacks Are 3 Times More Likely to Die in Police Chases

“It’s an issue of institutionalized racism, that communities of color are not valued as much as communities not of color,” says Michigan state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat from Flint. Salwan Georges, Detroit Free Press
“It’s an issue of institutionalized racism, that communities of color are not valued as much as communities not of color,” says Michigan state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat from Flint.
Salwan Georges, Detroit Free Press

James Thompson was the first to die.

The 75-year-old Navy veteran had just taken four neighborhood boys for haircuts when an SUV whose driver was fleeing the police smashed into his car with such force that the impact ruptured his brain.

Four months later, two Michigan troopers chased a driver through Flint at more than 120 mph until he broadsided a car and killed a 42-year-old nursing assistant.

The next month, when a driver without a seatbelt wouldn’t pull over, a Michigan trooper chased him, ran a red light and killed a grandmother coming home from a beauty shop.

The month after that, a speeding motorcyclist fleeing a trooper hit an oncoming car and died.

All four chases happened in 2014, all within 4 miles of one another. And all shared one other characteristic: Everyone killed was black.

The spate of fatal pursuits in Flint is perhaps the most extraordinary illustration of a long-standing, deadly and, until now, overlooked inequality in U.S. policing.

A first-of-its-kind investigation by USA TODAY shows that black people across the nation – both innocent bystanders and those fleeing the police – have been killed in police chases at a rate nearly three times higher than everyone else.

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 took a deeper look at 702 chases in 2013 and 2014, reviewing thousands of pages of police documents and hours of video of pursuits across the nation.

Among the findings:

  • 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 non-violent 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’s findings come amid remarkable national tumult over police tactics that increasingly are seen as targeting minorities. Deadly encounters over the past two years between officers and black men sparked unrest from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore and Charlotte, and raised difficult questions about why black people are stopped, searched, arrested and shot by the police at higher rates than others.

Pursuits are among the most dangerous police activities. They have killed more than 6,200 people since 1999. Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but are 28% of those killed in pursuits whose race was known.

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.

USA TODAY asked 11 of the nation’s leading researchers on race and policing to review its analysis. Each said the findings demand additional scrutiny because they raise the prospect that race affects one of the most lethal police activities.

“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.”

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Source: USA Today | Thomas Frank