In The Hate U Give, author Angie Thomas describes the fictional Starr Carter witnessing her friend Khalil Hariris die in a police-involved shooting. In a story that could be based on any number of black boys and men that have been killed by police in the U.S, Thomas explores the local context that affects fatal police-civilian interactions, including healthy food access, medical care, and violence. But the socioeconomic factors that are often at the root of violent activity can be obscured when media coverage or public discourse of homicides in high-crime neighborhoods focuses on the criminal history of victims, and ascribes violence solely to individual behavior.
In a recent Baltimore Sun story about an incident in which a civilian was killed and a police officer was injured, initial coverage focused on the condition of the injured officer and recent violence in the neighborhood, as well as drug activity and panhandling. A subsequent article that named the deceased discussed his parole status and criminal history before quoting an Inmate Connection profile, presumably to add a human touch to the story.
By putting aside the deceased’s connection to the criminal justice system, we can consider a more broad picture into what life is like in this community, and the conditions that may lead to violence. Poppleton, where this incident took place, is 80 percent black. 57 percent of households earn less than $25,000, and 87 percent of households with children under 18 are female-headed. The unemployment rate is 18.7, and nearly one third of the working-age population is not participating in the labor force. In Poppleton, 65 percent of children live below the poverty line. Even if you know nothing else about the neighborhood, this data starts to paint a picture of what it might look like for a young man to grow up in this community – poverty abounds, single mothers are raising children, and there may not be much connection to the labor market.
A mapping tool on social mobility drawn from Census Bureau data reveals that Poppleton – like much of Baltimore City – is dark red, which indicates neighborhoods where kids went on to earn lower average incomes. According to research by Chetty et al, in addition to neighborhood disparities, further disparities exist by gender, which is relevant when considering that men die in police interactions at far higher rates than women. Household income for black males now in their mid-thirties who grew up in the part of Poppleton described in the Sun story is $12k for males, compared with $20k for females. Among the poorest families in the Chetty study, when men reach adulthood they are less likely than women to be employed – especially if the boys were raised by a single parent.
Opportunities for education and jobs, concentrated poverty, and access to healthy foods have been demonstrated to be determinants of health, or neighborhood-level factors that can affect health, quality of life, and labor market outcomes. A recent study noted that the risk of being killed by police depends not just on the situation and the behavior of the victim, but also on race and place. As Jill Leovy notes in the book Ghettoside, even when journalists mention trends in violent crime and gang activity, there is little discussion of how trauma victimizes neighborhoods and perpetuates the factors that lead to violence. Sometimes an entire community is described as “at risk,” as if there is no distinction between victims and perpetrators. That’s how entire parts of a city, like West Baltimore, become almost synonymous with violence.
Mandatory reporting in a standardized format by police officers, and improved coverage by media, can improve transparency, and at least one of the authors of the study on police-involved deaths has advocated for mandatory official data on use of force and police killings. Additional data points can help researchers, government leaders, policy makers, and the public understand the context and causal factors that lead to violence, and lead to public policy solutions. We all have a responsibility to challenge our own biases and perceptions, to refrain from blaming individual behavior, and to use language that reflects our shared humanity.