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Unarmed black women are at highest risk when interacting with police, study finds

Tara Thompson, of Hands Up United, leads a vigil and march to honor and remember slain black women in downtown St. Louis on July 13, 2016.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio


Unarmed black women are more likely to be killed in police encounters, according to a national Washington University study.

Public attention on police-involved shootings has drawn a critical eye toward black men, but Odis Johnson, Washington University education and sociology professor, said the number of unarmed black women killed in police encounters significantly increases overall odds for unarmed black people as a whole.
“Because of race, police misperceive the level of threat and use lethal force even when people are unarmed,” Johnson told St. Louis Public Radio. “We were curious to what extent we’d see that dynamic play out along the lines of race and gender.”

Johnson and his colleagues drew their conclusion from 1,700 fatal police encounters with unarmed white, black and Hispanic people and compiled them into a database.

Most of the shooting victims were men, with the odds of a deadly encounter a bit higher for unarmed black men than white men. But Johnson discovered of more than 100 women in these cases, black women were more likely to be unarmed when killed by police, therefore increasing overall odds for black people. A similar phenomenon happened when adding unarmed Hispanic women to overall deaths, he said.

The study considers not only race, but location as well. The findings determined that where people were when the encounter happened did not significantly change outcomes. Researchers also considered characteristics of officers and departments, including race, use of force practices, education levels and if body cameras were used during the encounter.

But Johnson said there isn’t enough evidence in the study that shows the diversity of departments helped decrease killings involving unarmed people.

“We might not have enough diversity, and that if we had more diversity we could then see a point at which diversity and unarmed fatalities decline,” he said. “In other words we reach this threshold point, where the critical mass brings about a change in police forces.”

More than a third of St. Louis Police Department officers are black. About 3 percent of officers on the force are Asian, Hispanic/Latino or other races, according to an Ethical Society of Police 2016 department evaluation. The majority of the organization’s membership is black.

Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society, said the group has made efforts to recruit white women and women and men who are black, Asian or Hispanic a priority.

“When it comes to crime, and you have things that are very unique to certain cultures, if you don’t understand that culture, you don’t have someone there who can articulate it, you’re going to misinterpret something sometimes,” Taylor said.

The organization is re-launching its recruiting program this month. A two-day recruiting session starts Feb. 27, at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis at 3701 Grandel Square.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

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