Mounting Data Shows American Police Violence Has Racial Bias

Latest interactive project tracks every person killed by police this year.

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jul 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

In its first month of operation, a project tracking all U.S. police homicides in 2015 has revealed an alarming racial disparity when it comes to the 547 people who have been shot and killed by police since Jan. 1.

Whites accounted for 272, or about half, of the dead, while 154 blacks—or 28 percent—were killed, which is an alarming disparity considering U.S. Census officials say 77 percent of Americans are white and 13 percent are black.

On top of that, nearly a third of the blacks were unarmed when they were killed. Compare that with the 17 percent of whites who were unarmed when killed by police, and the disparity becomes clearer.

Those are just some of the early findings from The Counted, a new database that constantly updates a tally of fatal police violence in America. Launched by British news organization The Guardian on June 1, the project is a response to the U.S. government’s surprising lack of data on police violence. The Counted is the latest in a spate of projects of its kind—The Washington Post and activist organization Mapping Police Violence are among others that are maintaining them. All were inspired in part by recent protests and debate surrounding fatal police shootings—such as the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—with the aim to foster a better understanding of police violence in America.

Though the FBI annually gathers masses of detailed information on crime and even on police homicides, it gives a “partially distorted picture,” according to Jon Swaine, a lead journalist behind The Counted and a senior reporter for The Guardian. That’s because law enforcement agencies aren’t obligated to contribute their information to the FBI’s database.

“The problem is it’s completely voluntary,” he said, referring to the FBI’s database. “People may take [the FBI’s data] as comprehensive, but in fact it’s not. In acting comprehensive but not being comprehensive, you run the risk of reporting trends that aren’t there.”

To fill the gap and seek out more authentic trends, Swaine and The Guardian’s U.S. team set out to build a visual database that would include all police homicides in 2015. It uses reporting, local media, and crowdsourcing to catch as many incidents as possible—and update them in real time.

The Counted is distinct because it includes all incidents of fatal police violence; The Washington Post’s data just tracks shootings. It’s also particularly interactive, allowing viewers to filter by location, age, race, cause, and whether or not the victim was armed. This makes patterns apparent. For example, black people are “very much overrepresented in the database,” according to Swaine.

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The Guardian journalists also hope The Counted will shed light on why America has such high rates of police violence compared with the rest of the world. In the U.K., for example, few officers carry firearms, and high-visibility incidents of police brutality are rare.

“So why in the U.S. is there so much more police violence? Does it have to do with the proliferation of guns? Is it something to do with the way law enforcement is trained? We thought that was worthy of investigation,” Swaine said.

The Counted is a short-term project set to run for the rest of 2015, but it may continue into 2016 if it remains useful, according to Swaine. For now, he says, the journalists behind it are looking to the next six months of compiling data and investigating trends that have surfaced.