fbpx The hidden trauma of police killings | Harvard Kennedy School

Faculty portrait of Desmond Ang.The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has sparked nationwide protests and raised important questions about the role of law enforcement in local communities. But what are some of the other impacts of police killings? New research by Desmond Ang, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, suggests a direct link between police violence and the academic achievement of Black and Hispanic students.

 

Q: The issue of killings by police officers has traditionally been viewed through a criminal justice lens. You looked at what happens to students who live where these killings happen. What did you find?

The main finding is pretty straightforward: police killings have a negative and long-lasting impact on the educational and psychological well-being of nearby high schoolers. I looked at data for over 600 officer-involved killings and more than 700,000 high school students in a large, urban county in the Southwest. Students who live within about a half-mile of where a police killing takes place are more likely to miss school the following day. They experience significant decreases in GPA lasting several semesters. And they are 15% more likely to be classified with emotional disturbance—a chronic learning disability associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.

These effects are concentrated among underrepresented minorities. While white and Asian students are unaffected by exposure to police killings, Black and Hispanic students are strongly impacted by these events, particularly when they involve unarmed minorities. Ultimately, these students are about 2.5% less likely to graduate from high school and 2% less likely to enroll in college. It’s also worth stressing that my study only looked at the impact of high school students—but my findings suggest there could be other large impacts on younger children or older adults as well.

 

Q: How were you able to isolate the impacts of police killings from the many other factors in the life of these young people?

The difficulty of quantifying these effects is that police killings are more likely to occur in some neighborhoods than others. In my sample, Black and Hispanic people are two to four times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and similar disparities exist across the United States. Because race is so highly correlated with economic and social disadvantage in this country, comparing educational outcomes among students is likely to conflate a number of other factors like crime and poverty.

The highly detailed data I worked with—which includes the exact address of every killing and student in the county—helped to overcome this problem. By calculating each student’s precise distance from a killing, I can track how academic performance changes for students who lived very close to the incident and compare that to students who lived in the same neighborhood but slightly further away. As it turns out, once you zoom in to neighborhoods of about a square mile or so in area, the exact timing and location of police killings is very close to random. They are not preceded by spikes in local crime or arrests, nor do they have any noticeable deterrence effect on those factors. But these police killings do have an immediate impact on the well-being of nearby schoolchildren. This impact is highly localized, perhaps because nearly 80% of incidents in my sample went unreported in local newspapers.

 

Q: What do the findings reveal?

In my mind, the findings lay out the tangible costs that police violence can have on minority communities. I estimate that each police killing in the sample caused three students of color to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the pattern of results suggests that some of these effects may be driven by perceptions of injustice or discrimination, which could have other ramifications for society that are harder to quantify. That’s not to say that law enforcement agencies don’t benefit communities in other ways. However, given that lethal shootings comprise just a small part of the larger landscape of use-of-force incidents, I think my findings highlight the need to think seriously about the potential social costs of policing when deciding on law enforcement policies.

 

Q: This is incredibly timely research. When did you begin work on this?

I’ve been working on this and other research on police violence for close to four years. While I’m glad that people are engaging with the study, I think it’s important to emphasize that these issues aren’t new. Every year, about 1,000 people are killed by police in America. Most events just don’t reach the national consciousness the way the killing of George Floyd has. However, dating back to the 1968 Kerner Commission report and even before, many minority communities have expressed concern with how their neighborhoods are policed. Unfortunately, those concerns haven’t been represented in many academic disciplines. So, while I hope my research can contribute to the dialogue around policing, I also hope that it can serve as an example for future minority scholars of how traditional economic tools can be used to examine important social issues that might otherwise be overlooked.

Aftermath of a fatal shooting in Chicago.

Banner image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

In order to create safer, freer, more just, and more prosperous societies, policymakers and public leaders across the world must address systemic racism and bias. Harvard Kennedy School has gathered scholarship from our faculty members and other experts in the School community on the topics of race, justice, protest, and policing.