Victim or villain? Racial/ethnic differences in the portrayal of individuals with mental illness killed by police

News reports about individuals killed by police have dominated the news cycle in the past few years. But how are individuals killed by police portrayed in the media? Are there racial/ethnic differences in media portrayals? If there are differences, what are the implications for public perceptions of these killings?

In my working paper, I used qualitative content analysis to examine how 301 individuals with mental illness killed by police during 2015 and 2016 were portrayed in news reports. Results indicated that Whites were the group most likely to be portrayed as being victims of mental illness. For example, a relative described a family member as being swallowed by something he couldn’t overcome” (Bernstein, 2015). Another example from a family member described how the ‘system’ was a failure: we tried to get him mental help numerous times, but the system failed him, because he was declared ‘sane.’ He was very delusional. It was very obvious” (Chuck, 2015).  A quoted family member described a relative as being victim to their own mental illness that held them hostage: “he was his own hostage” (Romero, 2015).

African-Americans were most likely to be portrayed as undeserving victims of police actions. For example, a community member stated: now you are scared to call police if you see anything because you don’t know what police are going to do. They have [a] license to kill people for no reason and that is scary” (Rush, 2015). Quotes from family members tended to be particularly emotive. For example, a relative stated: it was their intent to come, kill and leave” (Samuel, 2016). In a different news report, a relative is quoted as saying: “they didn’t have to shoot him like the way they killed him: like a… dog”(Crimaldi, 2015).

Graphic content was much more prevalent in news reports about African-Americans, serving as a visceral reminder of the actions of police.  22% of news reports about African-Americans included graphic content, versus 6% of news reports about Whites and 13% of news reports about Hispanics.

Hispanics were the group most likely to be portrayed as ‘villains’ through discussions of substance use, criminal records, and expressions of support for police. While substance use disorders are widely considered to be a mental illness within the medical profession, discussions of substance use disorders in the media may portray the individual as having poor character. For example, a journalist described how a family member said his sister had lived a troubled life, which led to drug addiction and dozens of nonviolent encounters with law enforcement” (Sernoffsky & Ho, 2015).

References to an individual’s criminal record may present the individual as villainous, bad, and deserving of being killed by police. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is quoted as remarking: our guys [police] are going after bad guys (Butts, 2016). In another example, a journalist described how the officer recognized the man as a ‘troublesome criminal’ ” (Fox 2, 2015).

Explicit support of police actions from community members, family, and the media suggest that the individual killed by police was the ‘villain’, while police are the ‘heroes’. One example from a quoted community member highlights the humanity in police making mistakes: I thought I’d come and say a prayer…a prayer of peace because these are peace officers and sometimes we forget, we forget we’re not perfect” (Bolton, 2016). A journalist also subtly expressed support for police in a description of how fatally shooting an individual appeared to distress a police officer: Collins appears shaken by the incident, at one point throwing a glove on the ground. At another point, he is bent at the waist with his hands on his thighs” (Cassidy, 2015).

I do not assume that consumers of online news reports about individuals with mental illness killed by police are passive recipients of the racial/ethnic differences in media coverage. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the framing of these news reports contributes to police support or police distrust among consumers of online content. However, there do appear to be racial/ethnic differences in the portrayal of individuals with mental illness killed and more research should be done to examine the effects of such differences.

Emma Frankham is a PhD student at Wisconsin. This post discusses her working paper, “Victims and Villains: Racial/ethnic Differences in News Portrayal of individuals with Mental Illness Killed by Police,” available at SocArXiv.

This post was originally posted on Scatterplot



Bernstein, M. (2015). Man killed by Portland police ‘was just swallowed’ by bipolar disorder, mother says. The Oregonian/Oregon Live. Retrieved from

Bolton, T. (2016). Suicidal man armed with knife fatally shot by police in Santa Maria. Noozhawk. Retrieved from

Butts, R. (2016). Police: Man pointed BB gun before officers shot. Retrieved from

Cassidy, M. (2015). State releases video of fatal shooting by Haverhill officers. Valley News. Retrieved from

Chuck, E. (2015). Dallas police attack: Suspect James Boulware ‘heard voices,’ mom says. NBC News. Retrieved from

Crimaldi, L. (2015). Man fatally shot near BU had previous run-ins with police. Boston Globe. Retrieved from

Fox 2 (2015). Police: Unarmed suspect fatally shot by officer in struggle for gun. Fox 2. Retrieved from

Romero, M. (2015). Family of man killed by Spanish Fork police say they had no \indent options to save him. Deseret News. Retrieved from

Rush, T. (2015). Naked man shot, killed by police. CBS 46. Retrieved fromÖcer-at-dekalb-county-apartments

Samuel, N. (2016). Fleurant family: Port St. Lucie police had no patience during shooting. TC Palm. Retrieved from

Sernoffsky, E. & Ho, V. (2015). Woman shot dead by S.F. cops was ’lost’ to street life. SF GATE. Retrieved from


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.