People of colour and young suffer most from police shootings in U.S., life expectancy study shows

While more than half the of the people who died were white, more than half of the total years of life lost were among people of colour and young adults from 25 to 34 years old.

Overall, 1,146 people died in police shootings in 2015 and another 1,092 died in 2016.

The back-to-back fatal police shootings of Philando Castile, left, and Alton Sterling in July 2016 sparked protests and widespread outrage. Researchers say those dying at younger ages from police shootings in the U.S. tend to be people of colour. (Alton Sterling/Philando Castile/Facebook)

People of colour lose more years of life to police shootings than white people in the U.S., according to a new study that offers a fresh snapshot of the public health repercussions of violent encounters with law enforcement.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from The Counted, a website that tracks police shootings using news reports and other sources, to estimate the number of years of life lost by people who died in these encounters in 2015 and 2016.

Overall, 1,146 people died in police shootings in 2015 and another 1,092 died in 2016, the study found. Based on how young people were when they died and their life expectancies at the time, researchers estimated that combined, these fatalities added up to more than 100,000 years of life lost.

While more than half the of the people who died were white, more than half of the total years of life lost were among people of colour and young adults from 25 to 34 years old.

"These deaths are occurring largely among young people whose life expectancies were long and therefore contributed heavily to the years of life lost," said lead study author Anthony Bui of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"In particular, those dying at younger ages tend to be people of color," Bui said by email.

People of colour made up about 39 per cent of the population during the study period, but accounted for 52 per cent of the years of life lost, researchers report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Compared with white people, the number of years of life lost was greater among American Indian and Alaskan Natives, blacks and Hispanics, but lower among Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Part of the reason for this disparity is that white people who died in shootings tended to be older. Half of the white people killed by police were at least 38 years old, compared with 30 years old for black shooting victims and 31 years old for Hispanic victims.

The study wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how race or ethnicity influences the chance of dying in a police shooting or the number of lost years of life resulting from these fatalities.

Another limitation of the study is that it only examined fatal shootings, so it doesn't capture what may be happening in nonfatal encounters that might result in significant disability or medical problems.

Poverty levels 

"The age and racial disparities likely reflect disparities in socioeconomic status and poverty levels," said Ziming Xuan, a researcher at Boston University School of Public Health who wasn't involved in the study.

"Poverty not only puts individuals at greater risk of physical and mental health problems, but also limits access to emergency or intensive care in order to recover from life-threatening injuries," Xuan said by email.

Implicit racial bias may also play a role, Xuan added. 

Police might be more likely to respond to people of colour with deadly force because they perceive situations with these individuals as more life-threatening or think these people may be more likely to behave aggressively or carry a weapon than white people.

Younger adults and people of colour may also lose more years of life to police violence because they have a higher risk of being victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, said Alex Piquero, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn't involved in the study.

 "And, because crime, especially interpersonal violence, tends to be over-represented in disadvantaged communities in urban cities, it is likely that police are more likely to patrol those areas," Piquero said by email. "When these realities are combined with the fact that minorities are over-represented in residing in those communities, it sets the stage for the 
disproportionality that emerges from the study's findings."