At the start of the 2016 NFL preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench while the national anthem played throughout Levi’s Stadium. At first, nobody noticed. A couple weeks later, the one-time Super Bowl-starter-turned-backup had transitioned to kneeling during the anthem, and a movement to protest police brutality was born.

Kaepernick told reporters when his protest began, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” in reference to several high-profile incidents in which police officers had shot and killed African-Americans, many of them unarmed, and managed to escape any legal ramifications.

It’s been nearly three years since Kaepernick’s nonviolent demonstration began. The protest spread across the NFL and to other sports, including being adopted by World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, the first known high-profile white athlete to join the protest. The movement was embraced by millions of others across the country, but it was condemned by many, including President Donald Trump, who called for kneeling athletes to be kicked out of their leagues.

Today, even acknowledging that police brutality exists or is a problem seems to be a political statement: A Pew poll found that 78% of self-identified Republicans believe police do a good job of treating people of all ethnicities equally; only 26% of Democrats said the same.

So what do the numbers say? Are police killings getting more frequent? Where are they most common? The answer isn’t as easy to come by as one might hope. That’s because the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which compiles enormous amounts of data on various crimes that occur in the U.S. every year did not, until very recently, collect data on the use of force by police. And by very recently, we mean Jan. 1, 2019 to be specific.

Fortunately, multiple organizations have stepped in to fill the data void left by the FBI, and based on their information, we know that police killings of civilians rose in 2016 and 2017 but have dropped from a peak reported in 2015. Where in the U.S. are these incidents most frequent, what disparities exist between racial and ethnic groups, and what trends can we study, whether on the national level or city-by-city?

The State of
Police Violence

At least 1,164 civilians were killed by police officers in 2018, and so far in 2019, nearly 500 people have lost their lives at the hands of a law enforcement official. Since 2014, the number of police killings has seen a modest overall increase, though numbers have remained relatively steady in the 1,100s.

Over the past five years, shootings were the most common cause of death, with gunshots accounting for more than 8 in 10 deaths.

Though police killings overall have remained relatively steady over the past half-decade, prosecutions and convictions for officers related to deaths of civilians have plummeted. In fact, despite the number of police killings rising between 2017 and 2018, no officers were convicted and only two faced any criminal action. (One of those cases, in which an off-duty police officer shot and killed a man whom she wrongly believed was in her apartment, is still ongoing.)

Cities Where Police Killings
Are Most Common

Among the 100 largest cities in the U.S., more than 80 of them had at least one case of a police officer killing a civilian in 2018. By sheer numbers, Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles had the most such cases.

About half of major cities with police killings in 2018 have seen their numbers decline, though some have seen very dramatic increases. Here’s a look at the cities where police killings have gone up the most.

After adjusting for population differences, the picture changes, though generally, cities in the West still mostly lead the list. It’s also important to note that in none of these cities does the rate at which civilians are killed by police exceed the overall U.S. murder rate of 5.3 per 100,000 people, though one city is scarily close.

Racial Disparities in
Police Violence

One of the major planks of Kaepernick’s protest was that African-Americans were more likely to be killed by police officers than white people and that officers who do kill black people are not held accountable. We’ve already seen on that one of those scores, prosecutions and convictions of officers, Kaepernick was right — and that the situation has gotten even worse.

So what about the assertion that African-Americans are killed by police at higher rates than white people? That’s also true, according to our analysis. In fact, in only three of the 80+ major U.S. cities in which police killed civilians in 2018 were white people killed at higher rates than any other ethnic group when there were members of at least two races or ethnicities killed. And on the national level, only one state meets that qualification.

African-Americans account for about 12.5% of the overall U.S. population but accounted for more than 22% of those killed by police. Whites, on the other hand, account for nearly two-thirds of the population but made up less than half — 42.3% — of those killed by police. But African-Americans do not have the highest police-killing rate among all ethnic groups.

In no major U.S. city are white people killed by police at a rate that exceeds or is within 2 percentage points of the overall U.S. murder rate. The picture is different for people of color, and for Native Americans, in every city where any Native Americans were killed by police in 2018, the population-adjusted rate exceeds the federal murder rate — often by huge margins.

Cities do tend to have larger populations of minorities and lower numbers of whites than rural areas, but in almost all states, the rate at which people of color are killed by police is higher than for whites.

* Michigan’s rate of police killings of individuals whose ethnicity is Pacific Islander is based on a single incident, and the rate is so high because the Pacific Islander population in Michigan is relatively low.

Conclusion

Our analysis of available data on how often police officers have killed civilians over the past five years indicates several serious concerns:

  • Civilians are increasingly dying at the hands of police officers.
  • African-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics and Native Americans are all more likely than white people to be victims despite white people being a majority in the population.
  • The rate at which officers are charged with crimes has fallen by 90%, and the charge-to-conviction rate has vanished completely.

Nobody argues that being a police officer is an easy job. Not every police station is a busy one filled with dangerous people, but every police officer takes a risk by showing up in uniform every day. However, it’s a risk they’ve chosen to assume, and no matter what, it’s unreasonable to argue that simply choosing to take that risk means that an officer should never be held accountable for taking the life of a person they swore an oath to protect.

About This Story

As we mentioned, there is no official U.S government database that tracks the killing of civilians by police officers. To compile this report, we relied upon independent reporting and crowdsourced data, which you can find here. Two things are important to note about this data: One, it includes cases in which officers killed people while off-duty, but it does not include cases in which security guards, neighborhood watchers or vigilantes killed civilians.

Rates by race: To calculate the rate at which members of different races and ethnic groups are killed by police, we used U.S. Census Bureau population figures for states and cities that we accessed through the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder interactive tool.

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