Do Black Lives Matter to the Police? A Statistical Look

Race has a long and complex history in the United States, perhaps first dating back to 1619 when some “20 and odd” Africans were first brought to the colony of Jamestown.  Since then our rich culture of immigration (some of it, unfortunately forced) has resulted in a society where 40% of us can be considered “minorities.” In fact, less than half of children under 15 are white, indicating a potential shift to a majority-minority society in the future.

It goes without saying that minorities have made and continue to make enormous contributions to American society. Despite this, we as a country have a checkered past of treating them. From slavery to internment camps, from the transcontinental railroad to Jim Crow laws, the list really goes on. Given that some of these transgressions, like the Jim Crow laws, occurred just a generation ago, it is not hard to imagine a world where residual sentiments behind them still linger.

This brings me to current events. From coast-to-coast, the United States has been erupting in protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both black, at the hands of the police. George (who, by the way, collabed with Houston legend DJ Screw under the name Big Floyd) was killed by a white police officer, while Breonna was killed in a “no-knock raid” by plainclothes officers. These events, particularly George Floyd’s death, have sparked a nation-wide conversation on race, and in particular the relationship between race and policing. Even more specifically, people are upset about the phenomenon where it appears that police officers kill (arguably, murder) minorities at an extremely disproportionate rate when compared to white people.*

* – To clear the air, when I talk about “rate”, I am talking about raw number of deaths divided by the population of that ethnicity. In other words, 5 Native Americans killed out of a population of 100 is far more impactful than 100 Caucasians out of a population of 100 million, even though 100 is greater than 5.

Where I Come in

So, if we are to believe the media and the protesters, the police kill minorities at a much higher rate than whites. Critics of this argument will point out that many more whites are killed by police than minorities — which is probably true — so if you sit down and actually crunch the numbers (which the media arguably fails to do), whites are actually probably killed at a higher rate than minorities. To resolve this argument, I used a database that collects data on police killings since 2000 (it’s used by academic sources, so I’m fairly confident in the underlying data):  

As you can see, the protesters and media are right. Minorities — particularly black people — are killed by police at a much higher rate than whites. It is true, however, that in raw terms, slightly more white people (10,274) are killed than minorities (9,838).

Racism in America’s Cities

Minority Killings

Now that we’ve empirically established that there likely is a problem with America’s police forces, it is useful to examine our cities — the hotbeds of problematic behavior, protest, and reform — to see how they compare with each other. I’ll start with comparing the “minority killing rate” by police of America’s largest metropolitan areas:

Interestingly, NYPD, which gets a really bad race-related rep, performs really well among major metropolises. Let’s widen our scope to all metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people. Note that I had to spread this out over 5 maps for readability, so the size of the bubbles can only be interpreted within each map.

New York’s performance holds even when compared to the rest of America’s cities. Other than New York, no surprises particularly jump out at me from this analysis, but you know your city better than I do. Check the maps for your city (sorry Richmond friends — it didn’t make the cut) and let me know if something seems off based on your experience. 


Minority Killings vs. White Killings

Another approach to solely looking at minority killing rate by police is to compare minority killing rate to white killing rate by police. By looking at just the former, we are not only capturing how “racist” a police force is, but also how “trigger happy” they are (i.e. how likely they are to kill city inhabitants). However, by looking at the latter, we can see how much more likely a city’s police force is to kill a black inhabitant versus a white inhabitant. Below is the results, where the bolded cities are America’s largest metropolitan areas:

As we can see, the numbers are startling. Every single city’s police force – bar none – is more likely to kill minorities than whites. And at great magnitudes — nearly 90% of city police forces are more than twice as likely to kill minorities. The average increase in killing rate between whites and minorities is roughly 250%.  America’s largest metropolitan areas perform particularly poorly in this metric — particularly Boston and New York, who performed well earlier. This suggests that police in these two cities are much less likely to kill inhabitants than other cities, but when they do, they are more likely to kill minorities than whites. We also see some other familiars faces relatively high up on the list: Louisville/Jefferson County, home of Breonna Taylor, is 11th, and Minneapolis, site of George Floyd’s murder, is 20th — both above average.

Robustness Check

A potential counterargument to the above is that police don’t have a race bias, but rather a class bias. Poor people are more likely to commit crime, and police are more likely to kill people who are in the process of committing a crime (not that this is justified). Since race and class are closely linked (statistically, most minorities are poorer than whites), this relationship shows up in an analysis conducted with a race lens. We can check for this by restricting our analysis to the poorest zip codes of the cities we analyze. That way, theoretically, we are only looking at the police killings of poorer city inhabitants, and can see if city police forces are still more likely to kill minorities. If not, then the class narrative is true:

As we can see, our conclusions qualitatively hold. The mean increase in killing rate between whites and minorities actually increases, while the median falls slightly to 180%. This pretty much discredits the alternative “class narrative”.

There is strong evidence that America’s police forces kill minorities — particularly black people — at a higher rate than whites. 



My analysis indicates that structural change is needed at a deep level. Write to your congressperson. Register to vote (and make sure you actually vote). Consider donating to the ACLU. They do great work in a lot of arenas, including working to end police brutality and racial injustice. An alternative charity is the Bail Project, which helps people who can’t otherwise afford it post bail. 


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