Fact check: No, police aren’t only killing Black people in blue states
The claim: “All these black people are getting shot (by police) in blue states”
George Floyd’s murder in 2020 by a then-Minneapolis police officer set off nationwide demonstrations and debate about the killing of Black people by law enforcement officers.
Since the start of 2019, police have shot and killed 555 Black people, according to data maintained by The Washington Post. But one recent Facebook post adds a partisan twist to the debate.
“Patiently waiting for someone to point out that all of these black people are getting shot in BLUE states, not Alabama or Mississippi,” says an April 20 Facebook post from CJ Pearson, a high school junior whose website describes him as a “prominent conservative online personality.”
Pearson, who became famous for an online takedown of President Barack Obama when he was 14, made the claim with a screenshot from his own Twitter account. He shared the post within hours of Columbus, Ohio, police killing 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant.
But an analysis of The Washington Post’s database of fatal shootings by police shows that isn’t true. Since the start of 2019, police in red states were responsible for more fatal shootings of Black people than police in blue states.
“George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Daunte Wright’s life were taken in the deep blue state of Minnesota,” Pearson wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
But he then moved the goalposts away from states saying Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown were killed in “cities both led by Democrats.” Those shootings occurred in Kentucky and Missouri, states carried by Republican Donald Trump in 2020.
A closer look at the data shows no link between blue states and higher instances of police fatally shooting Black people, as Pearson claimed.
Since the start of 2019, police have fatally shot 2,304 people, according to a USA TODAY analysis of The Washington Post’s data. Those were split nearly evenly between states that voted in 2020 for President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and states that voted for former President Trump.
Narrowing the focus to shootings that killed Black people, though, reveals a difference. Of the 555 Black people shot and killed by police during that period, 298 were in red states compared with 257 in blue states.
Analyzing the data on a per capita basis, fatal police shootings of Black people were about 1.5 times higher in red states than in blue states.
Pearson questioned The Washington Post’s data, for which the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, as incomplete. The newspaper started collecting the data after discovering the FBI undercounted police shootings following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
The Washington Post uses news media reports, social media posts and police reports to compile the data, which shows a steady rate of shootings — about 1,000 a year — since 2015. Black Americans, though, are killed at a higher rate than white Americans, according to the data.
Pearson pointed to a June 2020 letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal as evidence that the database “has been largely criticized for incompleteness” because it includes only fatal shootings and not other deaths in police custody.
But Pearson’s claim was specific to shootings. And his claim that shootings were “all” happening in blue states is not remotely true in any dataset.
The Mapping Police Violence dataset, for example, is more comprehensive, including all police killings, including shootings, deaths from restraints and other means. George Floyd’s killing is not part of The Post’s data because he was not shot, but instead died when Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck. But it’s in the Mapping Police Violence Data.
An analysis of Mapping Police Violence data, however, showed similar results to that of The Post – police killing of Black people was not higher in blue states.
A questionable comparison
But is it useful to analyze fatal police encounters at the state level? Rajiv Sethi, professor of economics at Barnard College in New York, said no.
The co-author of “Shadows of Doubt: Stereotypes, Crime and Pursuit of Justice” said the more than 18,000 police departments and sheriff’s offices in the U.S. have different procedures, training, organizational culture and leadership, and “they’re relatively autonomous.”
“Policing in America is extremely decentralized,” he said. “If you want to understand policing, just looking at the state level is not terribly helpful.”
Sethi’s research shows regional differences in police use of deadly force, not just shootings. But he said there is no link to whom the state backed for president.
Overall homicide rates in Republican states are higher than in Democratic states as well, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Police and Research. Using CDC data for 2017-2019, he found the homicide rate for Non-Hispanic white people was 62% higher in Republican states. For non-Hispanic Black people, the homicide rate was 35% higher in those states, he said.
Damarra Atkins pays respect to George Floyd at a mural at George Floyd Square, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)
High-profile killings in mix of states
While Floyd’s death in the blue state of Minnesota has galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked protests against racial injustice, the mix of high-profile police killings has crossed over state political identities.
For example, 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, a state that voted for Trump twice, just before the guilty verdict was read in Chauvin’s trial for killing Floyd.
On a list of a dozen high-profile police killings The Washington Post compiled last year, two were in Ohio. The list was split evenly between killings in red and blue states.
The list also included Philando Castille, killed in Minnesota, and Ahmaud Arbery, killed in Georgia, which voted a Democrat for president in 2020 for the first time since 1992.
A police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old Black teen after arriving on the scene to respond to reports of an attempted stabbing in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo: COLUMBUS DIVISION OF POLICE)
Our rating: False
The claim that “all these black people are getting shot (by police) in blue states” is FALSE. A Washington Post’s database shows fatal shootings of Black people by police are actually about 16% higher in red states than blue states. On a per capita basis, the gap is even larger, with about 50% more fatal shootings in red states.
Our fact-check sources:
- The Washington Post, accessed April 26, Data on police shootings
- The Washington Post, April 18, 2016, Washington Post wins Pulitzer Prize for police shootings coverage
- The Washington Post, accessed April 26, Fatal Force
- The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2020, Police Shooting Data Give Incomplete Picture
- Mapping Police Violence, accessed April 27, Data on police killings
- Mapping Police Violence, accessed April 27, About the data
- Barnard College, accessed April 27, Rajiv Sethi biography
- The Washington Post, June 8, 2020, A dozen high-profile fatal encounters that have galvanized protests nationwide
- The Associated Press, April 24, Recordings show chaos surrounding Ma’Khia Bryant shooting
- USA TODAY, April 20, Derek Chauvin found guilty on all counts in the murder of George Floyd: Updates
- Johns Hopkins University, accessed April 27, Daniel Webster biography
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