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Podcast: We Still Rely On Volunteers To Tally The Victims Of Police Violence

“How prevalent are police killings in America? Where are the places where there are hot spots of police violence? And where are the places that may be models for police being able to do their job without killing people? We couldn’t answer those questions without using the data, and so we had to collect it and analyze it ourselves. Now that we have the data it’s possible to hold police chiefs and policymakers accountable to actually reducing and ultimately eliminating the number of police killings.” — Samuel Sinyangwe


It’s been just over a year since a young black man was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The year since Michael Brown’s death has been one of protest, unrest and a renewed focus on police violence, particularly as it affects black Americans. It has also been a year of data gathering.

(Those stats are as of Aug. 5.)1

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, we mark one year since Brown’s death with a look at the efforts to know more about what happens when police kill people, how the increased attention to police violence is changing American opinion, and what can be done next. First, Donovan X. Ramsey, who is a journalist and a fellow at the progressive think tank Demos, provides an overview of the gaps in the data. Many police departments don’t have a protocol for reporting demographic information about the victims of police shootings, but there are now attempts to standardize that information into one comprehensive database. Then, Samuel Sinyangwe, activist and data scientist, describes his efforts to fill in those gaps through the sites and

Stream or download the full episode above, and find a partial video and transcript below.

Collecting data on police violence

Collecting better data on every police encounter

Donovan X. Ramsey: Officers have a set of things that they want to know about any given police interaction, and then of course the public has a set of things that we want to know. So, a cop is thinking about: where did this happen, who was involved, does this person have priors? Things like that, because they’re in the business of stopping crime. The public is interested in tying together incidents that really do represent trends: What does this say about the way we police nationally?

Jody Avirgan: One of the things that ties it together is demographic information. Do the efforts to standardize [data collection] require that you enter demographic information about the victim or the cop?

Ramsey: That’s something that Bureau of Justice Statistics is working on right now. They’ve gotten a lot of political will and a huge push from the president and the attorney general to revamp their system. They’re going to include demographic information into the way they measure police interactions, but they’re also looking forward to measuring the use of force on a continuum from something as small as yelling to the actual use of a deadly weapon. This is for any sort of police interaction — not just a death in custody.

Avirgan: So if there’s a confrontation between a police officer and a citizen and it involves yelling, that gets coded?

Ramsey: Absolutely — it goes to what the relationship is between the police department and the community.

How the protest movement is affecting views on race

Avirgan: You [tweeted] a stat that 32 million more people are dissatisfied with racism in America. Where does that number come from?

Samuel Sinyangwe: I got it from a Gallup survey that asked, “Are you satisfied with the way blacks are treated in American society?” They asked this a couple years ago, and then they asked it again in July. They found that 13 percent fewer adults were satisfied. That’s 32 million. That’s the change we’ve seen in large part as a result of the movement.

Avirgan: Does that count as a “win” for the movement?

Sinyangwe: I think it’s hard to define if that counts as a win. Ultimately the win is for police to stop killing us. But I think it counts as progress. It shows that protests are really effective in changing public opinion. And that is the first step in putting pressure on public opinion, putting pressure on the media, and putting pressure on other institutions to respond to those opinions.

Telling a story through numbers

Avirgan: I wonder, from a presentation standpoint [on Mapping Police Violence], how you square the tension between trying to offer higher-level statistics and trends but also tell an individual’s story?

Sinyangwe: We want to tell the truth in different ways to appeal to different audiences. Some people are going to particularly resonate with the stories from an emotional level of what’s happening to these individuals, and other people are going to look to statistics and trends. We want to make sure that we’re respectful of the fact that these are not just numbers. Each number reflects a human being, a life that was lost. They have families, and they have communities that they were a part of. Police violence is much broader than just the individual who was killed. It is the trauma that it causes for everybody that was watching, whether in person or on video, for the community and indeed for the country.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.


  1. You can see the sources for the numbers here.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.