I recently encountered the site mappingpoliceviolence.org which contends that the US police are out of control and desperately need to be reined in, I thought I'd take a look at the data that their data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe and general spokesperson DeRay McKesson present as evidence of these assertions. The site's data is used as one of the main arguments of campaigns such as Campaign Zero which tries to drum up membership and money for anti-police causes in the light of George Floyd's death.
"Mapping Police Violence" (hereafter referred to as "MPV") asserts that unarmed black people are killed by police much more often that their demographics would suggest, that police are seldom held accountable for this, and that this is therefore a clear signal that the US police are racist. Handily they list *all* the victims for 2014 and 2015, with a brief summary of what happened in each case. So I thought I'd look through the list for 2015 to see whether the facts on the ground correspond with their interpretation.
MPV lists 104 fatalities of unarmed black people, 13 of which ended with police officers being charged with a crime. Let's take the first 26 listed (25%), and see what happened in the other cases - did a guilty police officer escape scot free? From these 26 I'm excluding the cases of Tiara Thomas and Paterson Brown where the officers were actually charged and therefore we can safely say something needs to change.
Police did something significantly wrong
- Michael Lee Marshall (Denver, CO): In custody with significant mental health problems, restrained by officers in the jail and subsequently choked on his vomit. Denver paid the family $4.65M. Officers involved received a short suspension. They clearly weren't intending to cause him harm, but it seems clear that they were either badly trained or negligent in what they did.
- Christopher Kimble (East Cleveland, OH): At first I'd categorized this as "accident", but on reflection I moved it. Kimble was knocked down and killed on a crosswalk by a police cruiser responding to a call. The crosswalk and street lights weren't working. That said, the police cruiser had one headlight non-functional and it was driving about 40mph in a 25 zone without sirens or flashing lights. If you're driving a police car then you're responsible for ensuring its road worthiness, and if you're operating outside normal driving restrictions then you're responsible for doing so safely. There was a civil suit against the city, and to my mind the family should win it.
Victim shooting seemed justified
- Keith Childress (Las Vegas, NV): Violent crime history, advanced towards police with what looked like a weapon despite being repeatedly told to stop.
- Kevin Matthews (Dearborn, MI): Apprehended after committing a theft, shot while trying to reach an officer's gun during a struggle.
- Leroy Browning (Palmdale, CA): Arrested for drink driving, starting struggling while being handcuffed and made a grab for officer's gun belt. In hindsight it wasn't clear from evidence that he'd actually managed to touch the gun but it was reasonable for the officers to fire in self defence as he was "poised to gain" control of the firearm.
- Miguel Espinal (Yonkers, NY): After a reckless car chase escaping from being pulled over by police for tinted windows, ran into woods where an officer caught him and they struggled, Espinal tried to get officer's gun and the officer shot him in self defence. Struggle wasn't witnessed but forensic evidence strongly supported the officer's version of events.
- Cornelius Brown (Opa-Locka, FL): Schizophrenic, attacked a police car and smashed its windows. Officers tasered twice without effect; when he advanced on them with a stick they opened fire.
- Richard Perkins (Oakland, CA): Drugged up on meth and morphine, Perkins approached officers while brandishing a gun that turned out to be an Airsoft replica.
- Anthony Ashford (San Diego, CA): After being apprehended "casing" cars in a car park, Ashford grabbed the police officer's taser and tasered him in the neck, tried to get the officer's gun. The officer shot him in self defence.
- Dominic Hutchinson (Riverside, CA): Repeatedly declared he had a gun, then ran at the officers carrying some binoculars he'd broken up to look like a gun. "Quintessential suicide by cop" said the police chief, and I'd have to agree
- Lamontez Jones (San Diego, CA): When stopped by police for disrupting traffic, Jones pulled out a replica gun and pointed it at the officers. Unable to see that it was a replica, they shot him. There is public video evidence of what happened. The family filed a wrongful death claim against the city but I didn't find any evidence that it went anywhere.
- Junior Prosper (Miami, FL): After crashing his taxicab into a stop sign, and apparently intoxicated, Prosper walked away from the scene of the accident. A police officer caught up with him, a fight started and the officer fired his Taser. They went down an embankment into trees, the officer pursued and caught Prosper, struggled again, Prosper bit hard on and worried at the officer's finger, and the officer shot him. The District Court agreed with the officer that it was a reasonable reaction in self defence.
- Keith McLeod (Reisterstown, MD): After being chased for trying to buy narcotic cough syrup with a fake prescription, McLeod went for the back of his waistband and pretended to pull out a gun. Although he didn't actually have one, the officer feared for his life and opened fire as McLeod's hand started to move back.
- Lavante Biggs (Durham, NC): Suicidal, after prolonged negotiations in a stand-off, Biggs walked towards police officers and produced a gun. He put it down and picked it up a few times, hence the "without a weapon" category, but was always close enough to grab and fire it. I don't see that the officers had any real choice but to shoot.
Clearly an accident
- Bettie Jones (Chicago, IL): stray bullet in an otherwise justified shooting. Police officer was nevertheless subsequently fired.
- Roy Nelson (Hayward, CA): Voluntarily transported with police for mental health issues, started to struggle. Police applied a body restraint harness as he was a big guy, but that impaired his breathing when coupled with his meth intoxication. He stopped breathing in the car and died. City paid $1M compensation.
- Alonzo Smith (Washington DC): Arrested by special police officers after running around shirtless and screaming, Smith was arrested and handcuffed but died of cardiac arrest due to high level cocaine intoxication.
- India Kager (Virginia Beach, VA): Travelling in the same car as her child and the father of her child, Angelo Perry. Perry was a known violent criminal, suspected of being about to murder someone. When police stopped the car, Perry opened fire on officers, who shot back. Both Perry and Kager were killed. The 4 year old child was unharmed. A jury awarded Kager's family $800,000; police were clearly not intending to kill her, but returning fire was inevitable once Perry started shooting.
- Tyree Crawford (Newark, NJ): Passenger in a stolen car. Police pursued the vehicle. When it stopped, Crawford bailed out and was hit by a police vehicle. Obviously an accident, caused by a poor life choice of getting involved in car theft.
Something needs to be done
- Michael Noel (St Martin, LA): Schizophrenic whom police tried to take into protective custody at his home, went off the rails and attacked officers , shrugging off two taserings and striking an officer. The officer shot in self defence. It seems to me that better training in de-escalation for mental health crises could have stopped the situation escalating to this point.
- Nathaniel Pickett (Barstow, CA): Stopped by a deputy after trespassing, Pickett tried to escape. The deputy caught him and there was a struggle. The DA's office found the shooting justified but a federal jury disagreed and awarded the family $33M in compensation.
- Jamar Clark (Minneapolis, MN): Got into a struggle with two police officers outside a building, police officers claimed he tried to get one of their guns, and shot him in self defence. The available evidence and many witnesses didn't provide a clear picture of what happened, but did not indicate any improper behavior on behalf of the police officers. The city later settled with Clark's family for $200,000.
Not relevant to police
- RayShaun Cole (Chula Vista, CA): This is an odd one to be included, and very sad. Cole was shot dead by his Customs and Border Patrol girlfriend in a domestic incident; 3 months later she died in a road accident that has a strong whiff of suicide. This had nothing to do with the police, really.
- Wayne Wheeler (Lathrop, MI): Again, shouldn't really be in the list: a neighborhood dispute that ended in punching and Wheeler being fatally struck in the head. The neighbor who struck him was an off-duty cop, and Wheeler apparently attacked the man when he was in his own yard. Nothing to do with police practice or procedure.
Of the 24 cases actually relevant to the police force we have:
- 12 where the shooting was justified,
- 5 accidents,
- 3 where there seems to be a need for improvements even if the police officers weren't strictly at fault,
- 2 where police were at fault and charged, and 2 more where they seem clearly at fault.
Now that's still needless 28 deaths too many, but out of about 42 million black members of the US population, it's literally less than one in a million. Looking at 2015 black homicide data, 6,152 victims were male, and 862 victims were female. The black homicide rate is nearly twice the white homicide rate. By all means let's push police-caused deaths down, but there seem to be other, more significant areas that Black Lives Matter could focus on. Incidentally, there were 121 justifiable homicides of black victims by law enforcement.
Similarly, 20 unarmed black people killed by accident by police is tragic, but it's not obvious what the police could do to reduce that in many cases. Note that two of the 5 accidents analysed above were caused by consumption of illegal drugs, and two others by the victim hanging around known miscreants.
You'll also note that only 3 of the cases featured women. 2 of the women were killed accidentally, the other was killed by her police officer boyfriend. For some reason it seems to be that black men interact negatively with the police a heck of a lot more than women. I wonder if the same is true for black men vs white men, and if so why?
Update: analysis of the next chunk of the list in Part 2