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The Disparate Toll of Police Violence

A new study examines the impact of police killings on student outcomes
Illustration of young people protesting

Though events of the past year turned a national spotlight on the disparate impact of violent policing on communities of color, the immediate impact of most police killings remains highly localized and concentrated. A recent paper from Harvard Kennedy School economist Desmond Ang explores the complexity of the influence of police killings on student outcomes in Los Angeles and finds that these traumatic events may in fact be contributors to economic and educational disparities that negatively impact Black and Latinx communities.

Using data from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office on officer-involved killings from 2002 to 2016 alongside the home addresses, demographic information, and measures of academic achievement for all high school students in LA, Ang finds that acts of police violence have negative spillovers across a range of outcomes, particularly for students living within a half mile of the incident.

  • Students within that radius were more likely to experience a decrease in GPA that persisted over several semesters and were more likely to be classified with an emotional disturbance.
  • Students who were ninth-graders and lived in that radius were also less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college.

Additionally, Ang found that the perception of whether the use of force was justified could intensify the event’s influence on student outcomes. Results suggest that police killings of unarmed individuals are more likely to negatively impact students, compared to killings of armed individuals or those who were engaged in violent crime. This suggests that students and communities are impacted not only by violence but by perceptions of the legitimacy of the use of police violence.  

Negative costs of police violence are borne by Black and Latinx students

Ang found no significant impact on white or Asian students, even when they came from similar backgrounds and neighborhoods. But, overall, his results estimate that police killings may have contributed to nearly 2,000 minority students to dropping out of LA schools. When combined with lower GPA and graduation rates, this results in a significant economic impact that disproportionally effects Black and Latinx communities and likely exacerbates existing racial disparities.

The findings suggest that disparities in education, particularly when it comes to race, are the result of a complex interplay of factors outside the classroom. Effective policy measures will need to consider:

  • The impacts and intersection of crime and poverty on student outcomes
    • Intergenerational mobility differs between Black and white families, even if they have a similar background or live in a similar neighborhood. Law enforcement may play a role in this because findings suggests that Black student outcomes are impacted by police interactions in a way those of their white peers are not.
  • The role law enforcement plays in a community
    • While some studies suggest that policing does reduce criminal activity, we need to devote the same study to understanding the impact of policing on community well-being. Emerging research suggests police violence can traumatize community members in the same way as violent crime.
  • Integrating place-based supports
    • This study is consistent with other research that suggests a student’s immediate surroundings are a major determinate of a variety of outcomes, including education achievement. To improve education, look outside the classroom.

Key Takeaways

  • Police killings most directly impact the educational outcomes of those students who live within a half-mile radius. A single killing is estimated to impact more than 300 students.
  • Those impacted students are predominantly Black and Latinx, exacerbating existing racial disparities and potentially contributing significantly to economic inequality down the line.
  • While violence of all kinds can negatively impact achievement, police killings of unarmed individuals had the greatest negative impact on students.

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