Police Killings by the Numbers (Part 4): the Final Tally

Because of the proprietary nature of some of the datasets I’ve been working with, I’m limited in my avenues of analysis, which means I have a fairly limited number of things to talk about here. This being the case, this is going to be my last post on the subject for a while.

However, before I leave off, I want to give out some of the data I’ve been working with, in case anyone wants to tinker

Here is a spreadsheet of police shootings by county with additional demographic information – information I’m going to be talking about today.

Here is a spreadsheet with each known shooting geolocated.

Both these sheets are valid for information known as of the date of this post, and neither will be updated.

So, let’s talk about police killings by county. First, let’s look at some maps, then some numbers. Here’s the number of police killings by county for the Midwest. As we might expect, Chicago leads the pack.

Same deal, US East coast. The cities are hotspots, though neither NYC or DC is too bad, and Philly has 10 fewer incidents than Cleveland, which clearly does not in fact rock. There are 34 shootings in Maine, which is like a third of the population.

The Northwest is a bit of a mess, particularly pleasant, weird old Portland, Oregon. Someone want to explain that to me?

The Southeast is surprisingly quiet, although this probably has something to do with the fact that the counties are smaller so the totals are divided up a bit. Still, we’re talking different police departments and different departmental cultures, so the size isn’t that important.

Finally, what you’ve all been waiting on, the Southwest. All I have to say on this is damn, son.

OK. Yes. Part of the reason this map looks so scary is that the counties in the SW are friggen huge. Still, Clark County – containing Las Vegas – has 153 shootings. The county with the next largest number of police shootings – Alameda, California – has 44. That’s messed up.

The top-10 worst counties in the US for police shootings by raw numbers are:

Clark Nevada 153
Alameda California 44
Bernalillo New Mexico 42
Multnomah Oregon 39
Cuyahoga Ohio 35
Washoe Nevada 32
Riverside California 32
Philadelphia Pennsylvania 25
Maricopa Arizona 24
Los Angeles California 22

However, if we look at this same data in terms of police shootings per square mile, we get this top-10 list:

Kings New York 0.19
Philadelphia Pennsylvania 0.18
Multnomah Oregon 0.08
Cuyahoga Ohio 0.08
Baltimore City Maryland 0.07
Alexandria Virginia 0.07
District of Columbia District of Columbia 0.06
San Francisco California 0.06
Alameda California 0.06
Suffolk Massachusetts 0.05

If we look at police shootings per head of population, we get a top-10 list of counties with one incident and populations under 10,000 – not really useful. Instead, let’s look at police shootings per head of population in counties with more than five incidents:

Clark Nevada 0.00008
Washoe Nevada 0.00007
Bernalillo New Mexico 0.00006
Multnomah Oregon 0.00005
Kootenai Idaho 0.00004
Ada Idaho 0.00004
Cumberland Maine 0.00003
Solano California 0.00003
Alameda California 0.00003
Cuyahoga Ohio 0.00003

While these lists are not identical, we can see a bunch of usual suspects. Alameda, CA, Cuyahoga, OH, and Multnomah, OR occur on all three lists. Bernalillo, NM, Clark, NV, and Washoe, NV, occur on lists 1 and 3, and Philladelphia, PA, occurs on lists 1 and 2. 

I guess it all depends on your definition of “worst.”

Still, if you’re planning a trip to Vegas, bring some body armor.

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Addendum to Part 3: St. Louis

Here are the known police killings in and around St Louis:


Michael Brown we already know.

Kevin Worley, suspected of breaking and entering, was shot when he pulled a gun on officers who were trying to arrest him.

Cary Ball was an ex convict who threw his gun to the ground before being shot 25 times by police.

Jaleel Jackson was shot by an off-duty reserve police officer (an active member of the force until 2007) who claimed Jaleel was breaking into his house under the castle doctrine.

William Dupree was shot two years later by the same reserve officer, again off-duty, in the course of a domestic argument. That officer, James Little, has been charged with first degree murder. Little is, for the record, black.

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Police Killings by the Numbers (Part 3): the Victim’s Race

(Read Part 2 Here)

I was finally able to obtain data which codes instances of police killings by race, which was not part of the Fatal Encounters project’s map layer release.

In total, the Fatal Encounters has approximately 1,100 mapped incidents. Unfortunately, approximately 350 of these are not coded for the race of the victim, meaning this data is very shaky and preliminary. Of the remaining 735 coded incidents, the victim was black in 261 (35.5%) cases, white in 351 (47.7%), and hispanic in 123 (16.7%). Blacks comprise 12.2% of the US population, whites, 63.7%, and hispanics, 16.4% [NB: I'm pulling basic demographic information from wikipedia. Sue me.]

These numbers are in and of themselves troubling, but that’s far from the whole story. Both racism and police use of force should be understood as institutional. We get nowhere by treating “the police” as a monolithic entity.

So, for example, Idaho doesn’t have very many black people, but they’re more than happy to shoot the white people they do have:

In contrast, the police in both Chicago and NYC are relatively unwilling to kill citizens, but when they do, they’re black:

And part of Las Vegas’ high rate of police killings is its clearly cheerful willingness to shoot you, whoever you might be:

Out of 131 shootings in Vegas, the victim was black in 39 (29.8%), white in 56 (42.7%), and hispanic in 36 (27.5%). In Las Vegas, blacks make up 11.1% of the population, whites, 47.9%, and hispanics, 31.5%. Shootings in Vegas correlate to actual demographics much better than in the US as a whole! [NB: the wiki article for Las Vegas does not contain the word "crime"]

I’m pretty sure no one’s going to argue that Vegas has more crime than NYC (15 incidents) or Chicago (8 incidents). There is clearly something cultural in the Vegas police department. Someone should study that.

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Police Killings by the Numbers (Part 2): What the hell is going on in Las Vegas?

Yesterday, I showed that most police shootings in San Francisco tend to occur in black neighborhoods. Today, we’re going to look at another US city with a lot of shootings by police – Las Vegas.

In fact, we’re going to look at a city with the most shootings by police from 2001 to today. This is insane:If you want to “viva” in Las Vegas, it’s probably best to avoid the Fuzz. As you can clearly see, there’s no correlation between these events and crime rates – just look at the south side of the city. Note that, as we saw with SF, the zip codes with the highest crime rates don’t actually see many shootings by police. And this is what it looks like if we look at shootings per capita by zip code:

Four zip codes have double digit figures! By way of contrast, here’s a map of police shootings and crime rates in New York City:

And Chicago:

And here’s the thing – shootings in Vegas don’t respect the same economic boundaries we saw in San Francisco. They still tend to stay in areas with average incomes below the US median, but they stray outside much more frequently:

Now, unfortunately, the data provided by the Fatal Encounters project doesn’t really have any demographic or ethnic information, so we still can’t see who is being shot by the Las Vegas police without a lot more work (if anyone wants to process that data, I’d be more than happy to manipulate it). However, as we’ve already seen, police shootings in Vegas do not follow patters of crime and follow economic patterns much more weakly than we find in San Francisco.

Time to look at race. Do police shootings occur in Las Vegas neighborhoods with below-average black population figures?

Almost never. And when they do, in all but 7 instances, they’re just on the other side of the border. 

Imagine that.

(Read Part 3 Here)

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Police killings by the numbers (part 1)

Police shootings: kind of a big deal these days. Unfortunately, for those of us who are interested in finding out more about how and why they occur – and perhaps shockingly – the government does not provide any statistics on shootings by police. In order to rectify this, Brian Burghart has recently started Fatal Encounters, a croudsourced database for these events. I’d advise you to check it out and make sure you contribute when you hear an event. This is one of those important things.

I’ve taken a first pass at the data. It’s important to remember that 1) what I’m about to say is simply about where police shootings occur, 2) what I’m about to say says nothing whatsoever about the people being killed by police – that’ll be next, 3) correlation is not causation.

Let’s look at San Francisco first. Here’s a map of fatal shootings by police overlayed with a breakdown of crime density by zip code. As you can see, here are quite a few shootings by police in and around SF, and as you can see here, they tend to occur in areas with proportionally higher crime rates, particularly in Oakland. However, there’s no real correlation – plenty of high crime areas in SF proper have no shootings whatsoever. So, in SF, crime doesn’t seem to be a determining factor. Let’s look at income: This seems to be more clear. Shootings clearly correlate to areas where the average income is below the US median. On the other hand, no clear pattern emerges within the areas which are below that median, and shootings don’t cluster in the poorest areas of town. So, let’s try looking at shootings by the percentage of the population which is black:

Here’s a very strong correlation. Almost none of the shootings occur in zip codes which have a black population below the national average. 

Maybe these are just the most densely populate areas, and so more people equals more police shootings? Not even a little bit. As you can see, almost every zip code in Oakland sees a frequency of shootings per capita at least 2.5 standard deviations above the national average. 

So, in the Bay area, police tend to shoot people in black neighborhoods.

Up next: what the hell is wrong with Las Vegas.

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The Mess in St. Louis

(c) NPR

I’m sure you’ve all seen this video. If you haven’t, be warned – it’s not particularly graphic, but a guy is shot to death. Here’s what happens: a man robs a convenience store, then goes out on the pavement and apparently waits for the cops to show up. They do, and 20 seconds after the time the officers get out of their car, the robber is shot dead.

Now, it’s a grainy cell phone video, so it’s not the best witness ever, but here’s a few things I noticed:

  • The behavior and demeanor of the officers allowed no attempt to de-escalate the situation
  • The robber shows no weapon or attempt at aggressive action besides walking forward, though video quality might be at fault here (the dude does have a knife. Kevin thinks this fact is really important because he clearly lacks reading comprehension, but he’s complaining to me and I don’t want to deal with it)
  • Two shots are clearly heard after the robber has crumpled to the ground
  • The cell phone footage filmed by an independent eyewitness with no connection to the crime was released by the St. Louis police department, not its owner. In a world where police gas journalists and steal their stuff, this is a bit worrying.

Is this an abuse of police force? I’m pretty sure you know what I think about that already. Was it racism? Maybe. I mean, it’s true that police seem to try to de-escalate when the person is white, but I think that a focus on the intent and biases of the individual officers obscures a far more important issue. This issue is systematic. It is inherent to the training, self-image, and self-conception of the police force in St. Louis, Ferguson, L.A., and many, many other places.

Look at how the officers in St. Louis approach the situation – based on the way they got out of their car, the outcome was almost pre-determined. There was no room for any result other than immediate surrender or death. Listen to the voice of the person filming the incident – he goes from thinking this is hilarious, to concerned (shit they’ve got their guns out), and then the robber is dead.

It’s not that the police misread the situation – they didn’t have time to read the situation at all. They arrived with a plan, and because of that plan, the result was almost pre-determined. In other words, this incident occurred because of the way the St. Louis police (and many others, to be sure) train their officers.

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a course on the ethics of warfare, taught by a philosophy professor who spent a great deal of his time writing and thinking about the use of drones. In the course of the class, he made the following argument: drones are not an ethical problem because of their use, but because of how they affect the decision-making process. Without a bit of skin in the game, commanders become blasé about the use of force. Abuses inevitably follow.

This sounds fairly reasonable and logical, but as my professor pointed out, there’s one huge sticking point. “A bit of skin in the game” constitutes a nice way of saying that we must put US soldiers in harm’s way more frequently. My professor had never served, and readily admitted that this meant that his proposal sounded like the worst kind of ivory tower theoretical nonsense. His response: that’s the job you signed up for when you enlisted. By the virtue of his or her position, a soldier cannot hold self-preservation as the highest goal in every situation.

In St. Louis, we don’t have drones. We have a mentality, a mentality centered on the primacy of a police officer’s right to self preservation. The two officers stepped out of their car with guns drawn because of this mentality. The police responded to peaceful protests in Ferguson in riot gear because of this mentality, and the violence in Ferguson resulted from it, at least in part. This mentality kills, and it kills because it imposes a solution on every situation it encounters.

I give the same answer my philosophy professor gave. The police must have more “skin in the game.” Self-preservation cannot be the guiding principle behind every interaction an officer has with the public. I also give the same caveat. I have never served in the police or armed forces, and I sit very comfortably in my ivory tower. Still, it is the right answer.

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European paternalism is totally justified.

This is my conclusion approximately two hours after I stepped off a plane in Germany.

Let’s start with the flight here on British Airways. It is 1) on time, and 2) there is no fuss with “boarding zones” or any similar efficiency bullshit. Upon arriving at your coach-class seat, you find 3) complimentary headphones, a toothbrush, a blanket, and a pillow. You get 4) a complimentary meal which 5) is actually half decent and 6) comes with complimentary wine. Then, another trolley comes by with 7) more complimentary beer or wine, followed by 8) coffee or tea.

What is this, air travel in 1990?

Four hours later, you’re an hour out of London, so you get 9) a complementary breakfast. Upon boarding your small regional jet for the hop from London to Stuttgart (2 hours), you get 10) another complementary breakfast.

Upon arriving in Germany, I hand the nice man at the immigration counter my passport I am 11) not quizzed on where I am going and why; my passport is stamped and returned without a word.

Having claimed my luggage, which 12) arrived with my flight, I board the subway which is 13) conveniently located directly under the airport. This subway is 14) clean, 15) spacious, 16) fast, and 17) dead silent. I mean it – you can barely tell you’re moving. Without windows, you’d be hard pressed to tell anything is happening at all.

My hotel is 18) two blocks from the main train station. Although I arrive at noon, I am 19) allowed to check in without any fuss. Despite the fact that this hotel is only around 150 € per night, I am 20) escorted up to my room and shown all the features. The room has 21) a real key, so there’s no futzing with stupid cards. Additionally, the room has 22) an inexpensive minibar, 23) electronic black-out shades, and 24) is stylishly and tastefully decorated. I am told the complementary breakfast tomorrow morning goes 25) till 10.

Oh, and the room has a shower with 26) side nozzles which also 27) doubles as a one-person sauna with 28) eucalyptus aromatherapy.

Oh, and there’s a bed with clean sheets, which is nice too.

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