Twitter Feed Highlights the Shocking Number of Black People Killed by Police

New handle @killedbycops memorializes innocent people slain by law enforcement by tweeting out circumstances of their death

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Protesters have converged on Ferguson, Missouri, this week for Ferguson October, a three-day event to protest police violence in communities of color. The neighborhood has been a site of protest and unrest since August, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown. Brown’s name joins a distressingly long list of black people who have lost their lives to police brutality, including Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant.

The deaths of these men have sparked demonstrations across the country, and their names have become part of a national conversation on race and police violence. But many other victims remain relatively unknown—FBI figures reveal that in a seven-year period ending in 2012, white police officers killed a black person at least twice a week. Killed By Cops, a Twitter project that went live this week, attempts to memorialize these people online. At least once an hour, the account sends out a tweet bearing the name, age, and city of a black person who has been killed by law enforcement officers. At press time, nearly 100 tweets had been published.

Killed By Cops is a project by Color of Change, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of black voters and specifically supports greater police accountability and more comprehensive reporting of police brutality.

“Over and over again, we’re seeing instances of black people getting hurt and killed by the police," says Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “We deserve systemic change.”

The data that the group uses comes from Fatal Encounters, a searchable, crowd-sourced national database of fatal police interactions maintained by D. Brian Burghart, the publisher of the Reno News & Review. Burghart began collecting data on officer-involved shootings when he realized, a few years ago, that no such database existed. Information on police killings is difficult to acquire because details from local law enforcement are often incomplete and unreliable. There’s also no credible federal government database that tracks it. There are laws that require the U.S. Justice Department to collect the information, says Burghart, but the law is “poorly written” and doesn’t enforce reporting by law enforcement agencies.

“Through 2012, there were about 750 state and local law enforcement agencies that were giving (the Justice Department) this data and there are 17,985 state and local law enforcement agencies (in the country),” says Burghart. “The data that they were presenting as ‘real’ was just a big lie.”

The lack of data makes it difficult to pinpoint weaknesses in law enforcement policy. Worse, it absolves law enforcement agencies of accountability, says Robinson.

“The police departments are allowed to police themselves,” he says.

From what statistics do exist, it’s stunningly clear that black communities are disproportionately affected by police violence. According to ProPublica, which used FBI-provided data, young black people are 21 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. Statistics like these reveal how deeply social inequality is embedded within state institutions, from arrests, to criminal convictions, to incarcerations, to “justifiable” homicides. Killed By Cops’ Twitter feed throws these realities into sharp relief.