Police have killed 672 people in the U.S. so far this year, but law enforcement agencies fail to provide the public with even basic information about the lives they take, according to data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe.
To rectify that, he founded Mapping Police Violence to create a comprehensive national database with real-time statistics on killings by police – a fundamental step for demanding greater transparency and accountability from police departments. Among his findings, Black people are 2.9 times more likely than white people to be killed by the police nationally.
Sinyangwe was the keynote speaker for a community symposium, “Pain and Power: Confronting Police Violence in Atlanta,” that the Southern Center for Human Rights held at the King Center on Aug. 19. The gathering was part of the group’s year-long project to generate actionable proposals from the Atlanta community to reduce police violence and increase community safety.
Several participants spoke about having family members killed by Atlanta police. Keyonna Cain lost her brother, community activist Oscar Cain Jr., who was shot and killed in March 2019 by an Atlanta Police Department officer, Marquee Kelley.
According to Cain, her family didn’t even receive a call from the APD that Oscar Cain had been killed. “I found out about the passing of [the rapper] Nipsey Hussle before I found out about the passing of my brother,” said Cain. “I found out through a Facebook message.”
According to news reports about the subsequent Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe, Kelley, who was patrolling the Goldrush Showbar on Metropolitan Parkway, claimed a citizen flagged him down about an armed person in the early morning hours. Kelly claimed he chased Cain into a wooded area behind the strip club, then shot him when Cain didn’t respond to verbal commands and reportedly brandished a firearm.
Kelley’s body camera was turned off when he shot Cain, and he filed just a three-sentence incident report. Cain’s family said he was a community activist who advocated for officers to wear body cameras
“These instances of police brutality have shaken our trust,” said Keyonna Cain. “I can’t get my brother back but there are lives and communities that still matter.”
“I pray that we can get past this. It’s not just someone’s face on a TV or on a t-shirt,” she said.
Deravis Thomas also spoke about his son, Deravis Caine Rogers, who was shot and killed by Atlanta police officer James Burns in June 2016.
In response to a suspicious person call, Burns, driving his patrol car, tried to pull over Rogers’ oncoming car, but Rogers continued around the police vehicle. Dashcam footage shows that Burns then fired a single shot into the passenger window of the car, which hit and killed Rogers, who was unarmed.
Burns was fired from the Atlanta police department and charged with murder. Seven years later, his case still has not been tried. “It’s tough to lose a loved one to someone that took an oath to serve and protect them,” said Thomas.
“Police violence is a nationwide epidemic in and of itself,” said Thomas. “I’ve been fighting this fight for over seven years now.”
Mapping police violence with data
After the families of the victims spoke, Sinyangwe provided additional context about the state of police violence in Atlanta. His organization, Mapping Police Violence, has been continuously updating a comprehensive database to map and analyze police killings nationally since late 2014.
So far in 2023, police have killed 25 people in Georgia – and Black people are 1.8 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.
Sinyangwe said there are large holes in the government data about police violence, since local police departments are not required to report shootings by police to the federal government, and states often make it voluntary.
“The states weren’t reporting it. The federal government wasn’t reporting it. We had to map the data through local media,” said Sinyangwe.
Sinyangwe said the story this data tells is essential to combatting the pervasive narrative of policing in the United States.
“The police would say that these high rates [of police violence] reflect a danger to officers and communities and that the police are simply intervening to keep themselves or others safe from acts of violence, from weapons and from harm,” he said. “Police are intervening in a dangerous world. That’s the narrative.”
According to Sinyangwe, the data does not support this narrative at all. “Let’s take this narrative that doesn’t hold weight, and interrogate it using data first,” he said.
The majority of deaths caused by police last year were situations where the officers faced no threat, Sinyangwe said. Most of the people were killed by officers responding to either a mental health call, a routine traffic stop, a non-violent domestic disturbance, or a situation where a non-violent, low-level offense was alleged – or no crime was alleged at all.
“That’s true of every year we have on record since 2013,” he said.
Atlanta is no different. According to Sinyangwe, only about 11% of arrests made by Atlanta police last year were for reported violent crimes.
The Aug. 19 symposium was the third phase of the Southern Center’s year-long community safety and police violence project. For the first two phases, the group held town halls to get feedback from the community on their perceptions of the Atlanta Police Department and then “crosstown conversations”, chats facilitated by community leaders.
For this community safety project, Sinyangwe said, it’s important to get real about when, why and how the police intervene – and to do that, it’s critical to have the actual data about police shootings.
The community safety project has generated proposals for policy changes to reduce police violence in Atlanta. Some of these have been piloted in other parts of the country to some success.
Here are the proposed solutions to reduce police violence from the Southern Center for Human Rights:
- Require complete and accurate data reporting on police violence from the Atlanta Police Department that a third party can audit.
- Require the APD to deprioritize low-level drug and quality-of-life offenses.
- Remove most criminal penalties from the municipal code for low-level drug and quality-of-life offenses and make greater use of non-law enforcement responses to harm.
- Decriminalize the traffic code: Reduce minor traffic offenses from criminal offenses to civil infractions, as many states have already done.
- Ban all quotas and point systems that incentivize arrest.
- Fund wrap-around services for people facing criminal prosecution.
- Re-direct a portion of APD funding for policing alternatives.