95% of Police Killings in 2015 Occurred in Neighborhoods With Incomes Under $100,000

The movement for criminal justice reform has finally brought the topic of police brutality back to the forefront. One unexplored aspect of police killings is the economic profile of the neighborhoods where the killings occur. In a first of its kind research project, I examined police killings this year and found that in the first five months, 95 percent of reported police killings were in neighborhoods with incomes under $100,000.

How To Follow The Economic Trail Of Police Killings

By law, there is no requirement for a comprehensive database of police killings. However, diligent researchers and reporters have labored to create a database that tracks reported deaths. Researcher D. Brian Burghart founded Fatal Encounters, a website and database that aspires to record every death at police hands.

A search of the Fatal Encounters database, focusing on the months of January 2015 through March 2015, the months where there is a comprehensive list of deaths. An examination of this list of killings with the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council's Geocoding tool was used to locate the Census income tract where the killings themselves occurred.

The tool provides several different income readings, depending on the year. For the purpose of our research, the 2015 Estimated Tract Median Family Income category was used, an attempt to use information that's more up to date than the 2010 reading the Census made. 

For most addresses, I was able to instantly locate a tract median family income. A few addresses didn't instantly return a reading from the tool, so I picked an address nearby, typically within a block. Roughly 9% of police killings occurred in non-residential areas or highways, or for some other reason I was not able to locate an income tract. These were excluded from our analysis.

Killing The Middle Class And Poor

For the 441 police killings I researched, the average neighborhood family income where a killing occurred was $57,764. The median family income was $52,907.

Just over five percent of the killings were in neighborhoods with over $100,000 median family income. The richest neighborhood that saw a killing was the 700 block on 14th street in northwest Washington, D.C.

This skews against what the actual income variation in America is. A household income of $100,000 or more puts you in the top 21% of American income earners; this means that incomes below this number are overrepresented by four times compared to the income distribution in how often they are killed by police.

A More Comprehensive Look

This analysis is far from comprehensive – for one, it focuses on a five-month period and uses Census geomapping that isn't as precise as it could be. Data on the actual incomes of the individuals killed is not available to us. Additionally, we did not identify the circumstances of the killings themselves – it would be relevant to know what percentage of these individuals killed resided in these locales. Statistical researchers may also find it illuminating to compare neighborhood incomes of deaths with the race of those killed – by doing so, they could use regressions to see how race and income interact as variables.

Consider, for example, the important work being done at The Washington Post, whose reporters are doing a comprehensive tally of police killings in 2015. Those reporters have broken down police shootings by various categories, including ones that are rarely looked at, like mental health status.

This research should be looked at as a “first bite at the apple” – enough evidence to warrant further examination about who is killed by police, and why.


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