Visualizing deaths caused by policing in the United States

Data Analysis and Visualization by Leonardo Nicoletti

Text by Orlando Nicoletti

Title Art by Antoine Balouka

The police is an institution that we have made central to our societies. We invest enormous amounts of money, time, and effort in its daily operation, in its enhancement, and in its reform; we are deeply committed to sustaining it. Yet many of us spend little time thinking about what the police actually do. This is especially true for those of us who are the most privileged, who don't interact with the police unless we want to. De facto, our society is at ease with the police committing various forms of violence — surveillance, arrest, detainment, and even murder — because it is considered legitimate, necessary, integral to our well-being. This soothing illusion has only been able to persist, however, because of a consistent disregard for those on the receiving end of this violence, for the individuals and communities who experience the police not in theory but in practice.

For as long as police have existed, those who are policed have denounced the harassment, humiliation, and abuse perpetrated by law enforcement, as well as the destructive long-term impacts of policing on people and communities. It has been easy to ignore these voices because the most policed are often the most marginalized, and also because victims of the police are made illegitimate by design: since the police only inflict violence on those who deserve it, to be violated by police makes one both deserving of violence and undeserving of a voice, et voilà.

Yet our failure to reckon with the reality of policing is also caused by the systematic opacity of police departments. In the U.S., there is no concerted governmental effort to keep track of acts of violence committed by police. This lack of data is especially disturbing when it comes to civilian deaths caused by police. The Las Vegas Review-Journal writes, "The nation’s leading law enforcement agency [FBI] collects vast amounts of information on crime nationwide, but missing from this clearinghouse are statistics on where, how often, and under what circumstances police use deadly force. In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life.”

To address this situation, journalist and researcher D. Brian Burghart undertook the project of compiling all civilian deaths caused by police in the United States, from Jan. 1st 2000 to today. This dataset, which is freely available on his website, is the only comprehensive record of the deaths caused by policing in the United States. This includes “all deaths that happen when police are present or that are caused by police: on-duty, off-duty, criminal, line-of-duty, local, federal, intentional, accidental – all of them.” To be sure, this data consists of more than the murders committed by police officers; it also speaks of the people who die from the consequences of an arrest, those who die during a pursuit or firefight, or those who take their lives during a standoff with the police. All of these lives constitute the death toll of policing, that is, the lives lost because of the presence and operation of the police. Burghart writes, "If this dataset falls short of your expectations in any way, contact your representatives. Local, state and federal agencies don’t require collection of complete data regarding the numbers and characteristics of people their employees kill because they don’t want citizens to have access to transparent and verifiable data. The State’s reasons for this are more opaque.”

In an effort to visualize the death toll of policing in the United States and to explore some of the dynamics that underlie this phenomenon, we draw on data from Fatal Encounters and put it in conversation with information about the governance of the places where these deaths occur.

Deaths by police in the U.S. (2000-present)

Spatial distribution of fatal encounters between civilians and police since the year 2000, where each circle represents a city. Hover on a circle to see the number of deaths by police for that city in a given year. Play with the slider to see how police violence evolves over time. Each year, cities with the highest number of deaths by police are highlighted.

filter by year

Racism as exposure to premature death

In recent years, video footage of brutal police murders has forced us all to reckon with the reality of policing, and in recent months millions of people have taken to the streets to demand justice, accountability, and freedom from police violence. Central to the analysis developed by this movement is an understanding of the role of police in subjugating Black people and maintaining racial hierarchies. This has been true from the very inception of the police, throughout its history, and it remains true today.

The systemic racism of policing becomes apparent when one looks at the data on who dies when interacting with police. Disaggregating police-caused deaths by race reveals three phenomena. First, deaths caused by policing have been increasing consistently over the past 20 years, and this trend is true for Black, Latinx, and white people indiscriminately. Second, Black and Latinx people are losing their lives at the hands of police at higher rates than white people — they are disproportionately affected by the violence of policing. Third, these deaths are becoming increasingly skewed towards racial minorities. These three alarming trends, which have been observed in prior scientific literature, could suggest that the police are becoming increasingly aggressive and invested in maintaining the racial order.

Police deaths by race (2000-Present)

The chart below illustrates the death toll of policing in the U.S. broken by race. Use the dropdown menu to visualize the racial breakdown of police violence in a particular location. Please note that for some cities or towns, data is not available for some particular years.

filter by city

Police impunity vs. police reform vs. steps towards abolition

One of the key demands of the current movement against police violence is to 'defund the police'. This demand, shaped by the work of police and prison abolitionists, starkly contrasts with the last century of liberal police reform. Traditionally, police reform has attempted to make the police a fairer institution, but in practice it has only exacerbated the impact of the police by giving them more money and more power. As the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance has noted, reforms such as body cameras, community policing or increased police training “continue or expand the reach of policing”. They increase police funding, reinforce the notion that policing increases safety, increase the tools and technology police have at their disposal, and widen the scope of policing. Defunding the police is a policy that intends to reduce the scope and power of the police by reducing police budgets while increasing resources for services that address the social, economic, and political roots of violence and harm. This is a first step towards police and prison abolition, a political vision with the goal of “eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment”. The call to defund the police is rooted in the understanding that "the only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.”

This understanding, which abolitionists have attained through their experience dealing with the police and by witnessing decades of failed police reform, is also substantiated by the data. By using data on the size of the police force in more than two hundred U.S. cities, a general pattern appears: more police officers per capita correlate with more deaths caused by police per capita. That is, a higher police presence is associated with a higher rate of people killed by policing. It is also relevant to notice that this pattern is true for both Democrat- and Republican-run cities, which (if we assume Democrats implement more police reform than Republicans) indicates that liberal police reform does not counteract this fundamental tendency.

Police Deaths and Police Presence in Republican and Democrat cities

The chart below illustrates police deaths and police presence across U.S. cities. The y-axis shows deaths per 100,000 people and the x-axis shows police officers per 100,000 people. Use the slider below to update data on police deaths and see how this relationship has evolved since the year 2000. For every year, we use a fixed 2010 estimate for police presence.

search for a state or city

Still, it is important to note that police in Democrat-run cities cause less deaths than in Republican cities. Breaking down the data by political party reveals that, on average, Republican cities have had consistently higher rates of police-caused deaths than Democratic cities over the past twenty years. This suggests that liberal reforms are at least more successful, or less damaging, than the Republican approach to law enforcement.

Republican and Democrat death tolls (2000-present)

The chart below illustrates the evolution of police deaths across all Republican and Democrat U.S. cities since the year 2000.

A closer look at the twenty most populated Democratic and Republican cities confirms this trend. Police-caused deaths have remained constant or decreased in half of Democratic cities, and they are consistently below the national average; in contrast, police-caused deaths have increased in 17 of the 20 most populated Republican cities, and all but 7 cities are over the national average. In addition, the rates of increase of police-caused deaths have been considerably steeper in Republican cities.

Change in police violence in the U.S. top 20 most populated republican and democrat cities

For each city, the chart below shows the evolution of police caused deaths per 100,000 inhabitants from 2000-present. In each graph a city's values can be compared to the national average (grey line). Hover over a circle to to see each city's values in both 2000 and 2019.

Deaths by Police per 100,000 Inhabitants

The near-stability of the rate of people killed by police in Democratic cities is a success when compared to the increases in Republican cities, but it is a failure in relation to the overall goal of ending the death of civilians who interact with the police. This data is consistent with critiques of liberal police reform that describe it as a futile cycle: in this view, reform is always an aesthetic transformation of the police, whose aim is to renew the legitimacy of the police after a scandal, while doing nothing to address the oppressive nature of the institution. Inevitably, every reform is followed by new scandals, which lead to more reforms, and the cycle repeats. The stagnation of policing death rates in Democratic cities seems to be a perfect representation of this tragic loop.

Popular revolts, police retaliation

The graphic below illustrates deaths caused by police in all U.S. cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, annually since the year 2000. We observe that, although the majority of deaths occur in the biggest cities, it is not always true that these cities are deadlier on a per capita basis. Consistently, smaller cities show the highest rates of police-caused deaths. Although this could be explained by the fact that police-caused deaths may not necessarily increase proportionally with the population, it could also be indicative of certain dynamics unique to smaller-size cities.

Death toll of republican and democrat police forces in

For a given year, the chart below shows the death toll of policing in U.S. cities above 50,000 people. Bubbles represent cities, and are sized by population. Hover over a bubble to see how police violence has evolved over time in a specific city.

choose a metric
search for state or city

In 2020, amid national protests against police violence, and with officers under increased scrutiny, police killings have persisted unabated. Recent shootings in Los Angeles, Lancaster, Kenosha, Wolfe City, Philadelphia, Columbus and again Columbus have renewed protests, and other disturbing deaths caused by police are being re-examined. The police, in the meantime, have responded by engaging in illegal acts of violence against protestors, as well as journalists, medics, and legal observers, both in the streets and in their homes.

Beyond policing

The data above is about the people who have lost their lives because of policing. Although these deaths are some of the most jarring consequences of policing, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Death is one end of a continuum of police violence that includes surveillance and harassment by police patrols, random searches, physical and sexual abuse, arrests, detainment, fines, incarceration, as well as the social, political, economic and psychological toll that policing takes on individuals and communities. Most of this violence is legal, and is simply the result of policing functioning as intended. Unsurprisingly, data about these forms of violence is virtually nonexistent. This, however, does not mean that we lack the means to recognize and address them. Sometimes, grasping reality is as easy as listening to those who have experienced it, and to trust the analyses and solutions they have developed.

Still, the numbers presented in this analysis speak of policing as a site of death and of reproduction of American racial hierarchies; they also speak of the resilience of these features, even in the face of political efforts intent on separating good policing from bad policing. Taken together, these phenomena could be understood through a simple notion: the problem is not that the police is imperfect, the problem is that the police is the police. We should not be thinking of ‘fixing' the institution, but rather of acting towards a society where such an institution is undesired and unnecessary.

Here are some resources to help us think and act towards a better world:

“Abolition for the people”: 30 stories from organizers, political prisoners, scholars, and advocates

Short pieces, articles and listening/viewing material on prison & police abolition

Resource hub about transformative justice and on the abolition of the prison industrial complex

A reading list on policing, rebellion, and the criminalization of Blackness

Tracing the past, present and future of incarceration

Histories of police, policing and police unions in the United States

An Indigenous Abolitionist Study Guide


The core data source for this visual exploration is the police deaths data from The analysis presented here is up to date as of december 28th, 2020. Other sources of data include 2016 county presidential election returns data from the MIT Election Data Lab, 2015 police employment and population data from the 2015 FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program. The code used for the entire project, from data-analysis to visualization and web-development can be viewed on github. For any questions or inquiries about this project please contact Leonardo Nicoletti.