Race and Reasonableness in Police Killings

66 Pages Posted: 18 May 2020 Last revised: 27 Aug 2021

See all articles by Jeffrey Fagan

Jeffrey Fagan

Columbia Law School

Alexis Campbell

Columbia Human Rights Law Review

Date Written: May 7, 2020


Police officers in the United States have killed over 1000 civilians each year since 2013. The constitutional landscape that regulates these encounters defaults to the judgments of the reasonable police officer at the time of a civilian encounter based on the officer’s assessment of whether threats to their safety or the safety of others requires deadly force. As many of these killings have begun to occur under similar circumstances, scholars have renewed a contentious debate on whether police disproportionately use deadly force against African Americans and other nonwhite civilians and whether such killings reflect racial bias. We analyze data on 3933 killings to examine this intersection of race and reasonableness in police killings. First, we describe the objective circumstances and interactions of police killings and map those event characteristics to the elements of reasonableness articulated in case law. Second, we assess whether inherently vague constitutional regulation of lethal force is applied differently by officers depending on the civilian’s race, giving rise to a disproportionate rate of deaths among racial and ethnic minority groups. We then assess the prospects for remediation of racialized police killings by testing the effects of an existing evidence-based training curricula designed to reduce police use of deadly force towards persons experiencing mental illness.

We find that, across several circumstances of police killings and their objective reasonableness, Black suspects are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than are persons of other racial or ethnic groups; even when there are no other obvious circumstances during the encounter that would make the use of deadly force reasonable. Police killings of Latinx civilians are higher compared to whites and other racial or ethnic groups in some but not all circumstances. We find no evidence that enhanced police training focused on mental health crises can reduce the incidence of fatal police shootings of persons in mental health crisis or racial and ethnic disparities generally in police killings. Our findings suggest that the standards in constitutional case law fail to anticipate the circumstances of fatal police shootings and are therefore seemingly irrelevant in preventing racial disparities in police fatal police shootings. In light of this constitutional landscape, we argue that the ineffectiveness of enhanced police training to reduce shootings overall and racial disparity within these shootings may reflect the absence of race-specific components in their curricula. We suggest that the addition of training components that specifically address the role of race in officers’ perceptions of risk and their decision-making in potentially dangerous interactions with citizens may remediate both the incidence of police shootings and their apparent racial and ethnic disparity.

Keywords: race, police, constitutional law

Suggested Citation

Fagan, Jeffrey and Campbell, Alexis, Race and Reasonableness in Police Killings (May 7, 2020). Boston University Law Review, Vol. 100, 2020, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-655, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3596274

Jeffrey Fagan (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-2624 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.columbia.edu/fac/Jeffrey_Fagan

Alexis Campbell

Columbia Human Rights Law Review ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

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