Not long after the August 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Samuel Sinyangwe was watching the television coverage. Talking heads filled the screen, some saying police target Black people, while others said this was untrue.
Sinyangwe, a data scientist who works at PolicyLink, noticed that no one seemed to have any hard numbers to back up their claims. He realized that if protesters in Ferguson were to bring about change, they needed to speak what he calls “the language of power and money.”
“People in power don’t respond to anecdotal stories and emotion,” Sinyangwe said. “They respond to facts and statistics.”
Sinyangwe set out to get those statistics. He came across an article on FiveThirtyEight, the website founded by statistician Nate Silver, which explained why official statistics undercount the number of people killed by police.
The article’s author, Reuben Fischer-Baum, audited Killed by Police, a Facebook page that aggregates media reports of police killings and found each one to be legitimate. But race was mentioned in only about 60 percent of the cases, making it impossible to tell if police were killing Black people at a disproportionate rate.
“We really couldn’t answer that until that data was coded by race and so that’s what I did,” Sinyangwe said.
Scouring social media profiles — “There’s very few people who don’t have a picture of themselves online” — as well as obituaries, criminal and other records, Sinyangwe identified the race of each person on the Killed by Police Facebook page.
The process was “incredibly depressing. You’re literally looking at [photos of] hundreds of people whose lives have ended. It felt very heavy,” he said. “But it felt like the right work to be doing.”
‘Just Regular Young People’
Sinyangwe created a data visualization of police killings, Mapping Police Violence, which surfaced some dramatic findings. In 2014, Black people were nearly three times more likely than Whites to be killed by police. Black people killed by police tended to be younger than their White counterparts and were less likely to be armed.
“These are just regular young people who are killed by police,” Sinyangwe said.
Mapping Police Violence enables users to compare a police department’s rate of police killings with police departments that are similar in terms of demographics and levels of crime. Among the findings: Newark, New Jersey, has roughly the same level of crime as St. Louis, Missouri. But no one was killed by police in Newark in 2014. In St. Louis, by contrast, four Black people were killed by police.
Police killings are not inevitable, Sinyangwe said. Canada has a larger Black population than Missouri, yet only one Black person was killed by police in Canada in 2014, while police killed 12 Black people in Missouri. And only one person of any race was killed by police in Great Britain in 2014.
“It’s not that they [Great Britain] somehow have people who are much nicer,” Sinyangwe said. Rather, he said, there are policies and practices within police departments that prevent or exacerbate violence by police.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice has researched ways to encourage prosecuting attorneys to seek alternatives to pursuing convictions. She said that while data collection is complicated, “it can be a lever for behavioral incentives.
“Just collecting the data lets someone know it’s important,” she said.
Tweeting Between the Lines
Mapping Police Violence has become a resource for those looking to put media coverage of police killing into context.
In the wake of news that six Baltimore police officers would be charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the American Prospect, citing Mapping Police Violence, noted that an unarmed Black person is six times more likely to be killed by police than is an unarmed White person.
Because reporting of police shootings is not uniform across America, there’s still no complete picture. Police departments in Houston, Detroit and Philadelphia, for example, do not report the names of people killed by police, Sinyangwe said.
A few police departments release aggregate statistics of police killings. Some larger cities have civilian review boards that receive reports from police departments. In general, media reports of police killings only mention race if the media outlet deems it relevant.
As a result, Sinyangwe is continuing to code police killings by race so that he can update the database and create monthly reports that will eventually show historical trends.
Each state has a reporting coordinator responsible for collecting and submitting information on police killings to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but they work “the same way I do, primarily through media reports,” Sinyangwe said.
Public safety advocates have launched “Vision Zero” campaigns to reduce the number of people killed in traffic. Sinyangwe hopes Mapping Police Violence will help community activists demand that their police departments reduce police killings, too.
“The reality is, police should know how to deal with people in a way that doesn’t use deadly force,” he said.