Data-Backed Outrage: Police Violence by the Numbers

Logan Schmidt Former Federal Policy Associate // Micah Haskell-Hoehl Former Senior Federal Policy Associate // Hayne Yoon Former Federal Policy Director
Jul 07, 2020

The United States and its thousands of law enforcement agencies have a historic opportunity to end our nation’s crisis of over-enforcement and over-criminalization. The worst abuses in policing—including killings of unarmed civilians—disproportionately affect communities of color. And far too frequently, these abuses go unchecked due to a systemic lack of accountability and transparency for police misconduct. In just the past five years, there have been at least 1,377 documented incidents of police officers shooting and killing Black people. (Although the focus of this blog post is the policing of Black people, Native Americans and Latinx people also experience disproportionate police violence.) This devastating statistic represents just a fraction of our nation’s problem of police violence and reflects U.S. law enforcement’s origins in slavery and white supremacy.

Over the past decade, the widespread use of cell phone cameras and social media has brought more public consciousness to the cold reality of police brutality, including the killings of unarmed Black men, women, and children. The tragedies of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd this year ignited overdue awareness, outrage, and calls to action from a wider segment of the country’s population—calls that have been made by communities of color for hundreds of years. The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) shares this outrage over violence in U.S. policing—and we have the data to illustrate how disparate law enforcement practices are.

The problem of overpolicing is due in large part to over-arrest. Being arrested or receiving a summons or citation is usually a person’s first step into the criminal legal system. Enforcement of all forms, but arrests in particular, have damaging consequences for individuals, families, communities, law enforcement officers and departments, and the nation. Vera’s Arrest Trends tool provides users with an interactive visualization that can help educate community members and elected officials about the problems of overpolicing and over-enforcement in their towns, cities, counties, and states, and at the national level. For example, the tool can pinpoint jurisdictions that have substantial racial disparities in arrest numbers or high rates of arrest for low-level offenses—or where law enforcement officials fail to report critical data.

Here is a sampling of numbers behind the crisis of overpolicing:

  • Police arrest someone every three seconds in the United States. That amounts to a staggering 10.5 million arrests per year.
  • One in three people in this country will experience arrest by age 23, but the rate among young Black men is almost one in two.
  • Twenty-seven percent of those arrested in 2016 were Black, even though Black people constitute only about 13 percentof the U.S. population. For all offenses, Black people were arrested at a rate 2.17 times that of white people. For arrests for suspicion of a crime—when someone is arrested for no specific offense and released without formal charges—Black people were arrested at a rate 5.36 times that of white people.
  • More than 80 percent of arrests made in 2016 were for nonserious nonviolent charges.
  • Drug arrests increased by 171 percent from 1980 to 2016, and—despite recent smaller declines—accounted for more than 1.5 million arrests in 2016. The vast majority of those arrests were for drug possession, most often marijuana possession.
  • In 2016, Black people were arrested at a rate 2.12 times that of white people for “drug abuse,” a rate that has increased by about 61 percent since 1980.

The problem of police violence is partially rooted in over-enforcement and the resources required to support this apparatus. In every arrest lies the threat of escalation, injury, and death.

Over-criminalization and excessive reliance on arrests also lead to mass incarceration, diminished public health and economic prosperity, racial inequities, and mistrust among communities and police. Cities and communities spend far more on policing than on most other services, such as welfare or housing. Police department budgets remain at an all-time high, while state and local jurisdictions are facing a period of austerity and cuts likely to reduce critical public services such as education and community mental health resources.

Vera recently shared our data with the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement. We need policies that transform how we conceive of and achieve public safety. To this end, Vera recommended, at a minimum, the following steps:

  • require all local law enforcement agencies to collect accurate and complete data on police misconduct and use of force, disaggregated by all demographic categories;
  • prohibit all forms of excessive force and require implementation of de-escalation and nonenforcement policies and responses; and
  • shift resources from local law enforcement to communities for services for low-income and vulnerable residents, such as free medical clinics, community mental health centers, public housing, and workforce training and assistance.

Vera is committed to dismantling the current culture of policing and working toward solutions that shift power and public investment back to communities. Let’s not spend any more time tinkering with incremental reforms. We call on all elected officials and candidates for public office to look at the plain evidence of racial bias that is apparent from our data and use it to enact wholesale change.