Worst cities for police violence against Black people and the elected positions that matter

Updated: Jun 8

Dr. Elena Grewal, Alex Orenstein


We are appalled by how black people are treated by the police in the US and by how deeply racism is ingrained in our country. Black lives matter. At Data 2 the People we are using data to help elect candidates for public office aligned with our values - candidates who are going to support the BLM movement.


As President Obama shared, local elections are a mechanism for change, writing “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels. It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions...

- Barack Obama, Instagram, June 1, 2020


Taking this advice, we look into four questions:

  1. Which are the worst cities for Black people with respect to police violence?

  2. What type of elected officials can we support in those cities to make an impact?

  3. What are the election dynamics?

  4. What can we do to support those elections with data?


1. What are the worst cities for Black people with respect to police violence?


First we needed to actually find the data. This is difficult, a symptom of the problem that perpetuates the problem. As Bryan Stevenson, author and protagonist in Just Mercy, writesno one in this country can tell you how many people were killed by the police last year, because we don’t require that data. People have been trying for two decades to mandate the disclosure of that kind of information.”


We found a dataset compiled by the Washington Post. The Post started tracking more than a dozen details on every fatal shooting in the U.S. since 2015. They continue to enhance this data as more facts emerge about individual cases, seeking help from the public. We also found a database of police killings as part of the Mapping Police Violence project created by We the Protesters. The Washington Post had 5 more months of data, through June 1 of this year, so that is what we use. We did notice some differences between the datasets prior to this year that we would like to look into further; at a high level, the data matched.


We then mapped the data by metro area:

(Click on the map to interact with it + view the legend)


We look at the raw number, not the percentage of the population, because we want to understand where the impact of changing the local officials will be biggest.


The specific cities in the US with the highest number of police shootings of Black people by the police since 2015 are the following:

The 15 cities above represent about ~20% of all police killings of black people by gunshot. While there are other forms of police brutality not captured here, we believe this is a useful proxy for police violence.


2. What type of elected officials can make change?


District Attorneys -- District attorneys are the “chief prosecutor” typically at a county level (depends on the state) and lead a staff of prosecutors. The District attorney is usually the only member of their staff who is elected. The DA’s office decides whether to prosecute police officers. Color of Change has created a database of prosecutors here. DAs can take money from police unions, creating a conflict of interest. To find DA candidates whom we want to support, we can look for those who didn’t take money from policy unions.


Mayors -- In some places mayors hire and fire police chiefs, in others they appoint police chiefs, and in other places they control the city council as well. Mayors also have some power over the police budget depending on the place (e.g. can veto the budget). They are also leaders of the city so are important moral leaders with influence beyond their formal scope of authority.


Sheriffs -- Many states have elected sheriffs, who can serve in a role similar to police chief. The job depends on where they are. In Harris county, the sheriff is the police force for the unincorporated part (2 million people). They are also often responsible for the county jail conditions.


State Attorneys -- Some states have “state attorneys” instead of “district attorneys.” The function is similar. They could overnight stop charging thousands of cases and can decide on what sentence to ask for.


Attorney General -- The state attorney. Our understanding is that for police killings the attorney general at the state level does not typically have much impact.


City Council -- Typically determines the budget for the police can reallocate funds. They also can start new programs that could make a big difference.


Judges -- There are many elected judges. They make sentencing determinations which is key for determining what happens to police and Black people. Sometimes there is an elected “chief judge” who sets policies.


Ballot initiatives / Propositions -- Not an elected official, but another way to change laws and the police. For example, passing a constitutional amendment giving returning citizens the right to vote after a felony conviction in Florida.


We welcome additional input on this list!



3. What are the election dynamics?


We started by looking at one location as an example. Houston, Texas is a part of Harris County, and so we took a look at the election results from 2018.


In Houston, there were 1.2M ballots cast across all elected positions (~50% of registered voters, ~25% of the overall population). On the ballot, there were 76 judges up for election, and another 9 justices of the peace. Despite this seemingly large opportunity to make a difference, 10% of voters didn’t cast a vote for a judge at all. More importantly, regarding those who actually did vote for a judge, we wonder how many voters really knew who would be best to vote for, for the competitive judges races (of which there were many).


This gives a sense of just how many elected officials there are who can influence outcomes for the criminal justice system and the importance of working on those races so the best candidate wins and so voters know why it matters. We’re in the process of gathering additional data on races for the above offices to calculate margins and target candidates.


Out of the 15 cities we identified, 80% are led by a Democratic mayor and 40% are led by a Black mayor. Party affiliation is only one signal here


4. What can we do with data?


Our mission at Data 2 the People is to help elect candidates who will support making the world better, and BLM is a critical movement in achieving that mission.


There are multiple ways we can use data to help candidates for these races:


1. Raise more money:


Candidates spend a lot of time fundraising (for some races up to 30-40 hours per week). We can use data to identify opportunities to increase fundraising efficiency.


2. Know who to reach out to:


Most small races don’t have the budget to reach every voter personally, so data can help the campaign to determine who will be best to focus on.


3. Test what works:


So much money is spent without a clear sense of the return on the investment. Testing and experimentation can be the new norm for how a campaign is run.


In addition to helping candidates win, we can help to educate the public (and to aid our candidate selection) by looking into data on the candidates and their records, along with data on the issues in their jurisdictions.


After the Election:


Electing those who support the BLM movement will not necessarily create change without a strong agenda and the ability to navigate the pushback that will come from attempting to create change. That said, the right leaders in place will help.


Call to Action:


We welcome data help. We are a community of like-minded data experts. You can find our values here.


This is the most important election in US history, and we want to do everything we can to help.


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