When Police Kill,
in Black and White
Systemic racism exists. It varies from state to state, from city to city, but it cannot be denied. The simplest evidence is the disproportionate rate at which bad things happen to people of color (especially black people) when compared to their representation in the population. This is true when considering poverty rates, incarceration rates, COVID-19 infection rates, and many other measures.
You can get further into the meanings and causes of these and other related statistics. And you can debate the various proposed solutions to this issue. But you can't debate there is a problem. On the face of it, in black and white, this is clear.
Here we investigate the primary police departments in the top 91 U.S. cities by population where at least one black person was killed by police from 2013-2019. For each city, you can see each black person killed by police in that timeframe (if viewing on a desktop computer), the relative share of the black population in that city, and the relative share of police killings of black people in that city, as well as that city's population size. The list is arranged in order by the percentage of victims of police killings who were black.
In four of these cities, every person killed by police over the 7 years tracked were black. Chesapeake, Virginia, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, have just a handful of these killings between them, but Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Jersey City, New Jersey, have 10 and 8, respectively. Even with a relatively small number—8 or 10 (it's difficult to talk of lives in these terms, but from a data standpoint, that's a small number)—when 100% of the victims are black, you can't help but take notice when only half or a quarter of the city's population is black.
For a city that is only a bit larger than those previously mentioned, with a population of about 300K, St. Louis has a very large number of police killings, with 90% black victims. And this list is restricted to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. It doesn't include the most notorious case from the region, the killing of Michael Brown, who was killed by members of the Ferguson Police Department. Brown's killing triggered widespread protests that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement, which had begun the prior year.
As we proceed down the list, we come across a series of cities with populations ranging from about 300K to about 600K. Each of these cities has varying degrees of disparity between the black share of population and the black share of victims of police killings. Other insights are also visible here. Baltimore, a relatively small city, has a pretty large number of people killed by police (including another well-known case that captured the nation's attention, Freddie Gray.) Boston has a relatively low number of people killed by police, but the disparity between the share of population and the impact on the black community is stark.
Chicago has the largest number of black victims of police killings in the data set. While it is only about 1/3 the size of New York City, Chicago has more black victims of police killings, including Laquan McDonald, another of the disturbing cases captured on video.
New York has also had its fair share of publicity for events like these, including the case of Eric Garner, whose killing was captured on video and marked the first time we heard "I can't breathe" in relation to one of these horrific events. New York, being the largest city in the U.S. will always be in the spotlight, and the rate at which black people are killed by police is nearly 3X their representation in the population. There are worse cities by these measures, but New York has plenty of work to do on this front.
Cities like Columbus, OH, should not escape our notice. While in this context it blends in, the Columbus Police Department has the dubious distinction of having the worst killings per arrest record with a rate of 40.8 killings per 10,000 arrests during this time period. Second place goes to Oklahoma City, with the still very high, but significantly lower, rate of 27.
In this next group, we see the first cities to investigate further as possible success models, when we come across Memphis, Birmingham, and Detroit. While each of these cities is still experiencing killings of citizens at police hands, they're the first where we see the ratio of killings of black victims at or below the share of the population that is black. While this inevitably brings up questions about which population group is suffering disproportionately instead, these cities could provide some answers about what contributes to these disparities, whichever way they trend.
Cities like Los Angeles, a very visible large city with its own infamous history with police brutality, appears to perform better in this data set than you might asssume. Of course, it depends on your angle on the data. Los Angeles has the largest number of police killings of any police department, with a much greater share of its victims being Hispanic rather than black. Note also that this data set contains records from the Los Angeles Police Department (city of LA, not the entire county), which is less than half of what we normally think of as "LA".
Two other cities that fade back in this list are Phoenix and Houston, which have the 2nd and 5th highest total number of police killings (Chicago and New York round out the top 5.) Once again, if you factor in Hispanic victims, the picture changes dramatically from what you see here.
Almost all of these cities manifest demonstrable racial disparities. The problem is complex and influenced by nearly endless factors that go beyond this investigation, but they are solvable.
Want to do something right now? Black Lives Matter, Center for Policing Equity, ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and many other organizations are fighting for change. Donate, join the conversation, vote for candidates that support the cause.
If George Floyd has proven anything, it's that one voice can become 1 million voices or 100 million voices, which cannot be ignored.