2023 saw record killings by US police. Who is most affected? (2024)

Police in the US killed at least 1,232 people last year, making 2023 the deadliest year for homicides committed by law enforcement in more than a decade, according to newly released data.

Mapping Police Violence, a non-profit research group, catalogs deaths at the hands of police and last year recorded the highest number of killings since its national tracking began in 2013. The data suggests a systemic crisis and a remarkably consistent pattern, with an average of roughly three people killed by officers each day, with slight upticks in recent years.

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The group recorded 30 more deaths in 2023 than the previous year, with 1,202 people killed in 2022; 1,148 in 2021; 1,160 in 2020; and 1,098 in 2019. The numbers include shooting victims, as well as people fatally shocked by a stun gun, beaten or restrained. The 2023 count is preliminary, and cases could be added as the database is updated.

High-profile 2023 cases included the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis; the tasing of Keenan Anderson in Los Angeles; and the shooting in Lancaster, California, of Niani Finlayson, who had called 911 for help over domestic violence. There were hundreds more who garnered little attention, including Ricky Cobb, shot by a Minnesota trooper after he was pulled over for a tail light violation; Tahmon Kenneth Wilson, unarmed and shot outside a Bay Area cannabis dispensary; and Isidra Clara Castillo, killed when police in Amarillo, Texas, fired at someone else in the same car as her.

Here are some key takeaways from the data and experts’ insight into why US police continue to kill civilians at a rate an order of magnitude higher than comparable nations.

Police violence is increasing as murders are falling

The record number of police killings happened in a year that saw a significant decrease in homicides, according to preliminary reports of 2023 murder rates; one analyst said the roughly 13% decrease in homicides last year appears to be the largest year-to-year drop on record, and reports have also signaled drops in other violent and property crimes.

“Violence is trending downwards at an unprecedented rate, but the exception to that seems to be the police, who are engaging in more violence each year,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a policy analyst and data scientist who founded Mapping Police Violence. “It hits home that many of the promises and actions made after the murder of George Floyd don’t appear to have reduced police violence on a nationwide level.”

Some advocates say the lack of systemic reforms and continued expansion of police forces have helped sustain the high rates. Polls show most Americans believe crime is rising, and amid voter concerns about safety and violence, municipalities have continued to increase police budgets.

Monifa Bandele, an activist on the leadership team for the Movement for Black Lives, said that while state and local governments continue to rely on police to address mental health crises, domestic disputes and other social problems, killings will continue: “The more police you put on the streets to interact with members of my community, the greater the risk of harm, abuse and death.”

Many people were killed while trying to flee police

The circ*mstances behind the 2023 killings mirrored past trends. Last year, 445 people killed by police had been fleeing, representing 36% of all cases. There have been efforts across the country to prevent police from shooting at fleeing cars and people, recognizing the danger to the public. But the rates have been steady in recent years, with one in three killings involving people fleeing.

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The underlying reasons for the encounters were also consistent. In 2023, 139 killings (11%) involved claims a person was seen with a weapon; 107 (9%) began as traffic violations; 100 (8%) were mental health or welfare checks; 79 (6%) were domestic disturbances; 73 (6%) were cases where no offenses were alleged; 265 (22%) involved other alleged nonviolent offenses; and 469 (38%) involved claims of violent offenses or more serious crimes.

“The majority of cases have not originated from reported violent crimes. The police are routinely called into situations where there was no violence until police arrived and the situation escalated,” Sinyangwe said.

Sheriffs’ departments and rural regions are driving the increase

In 2023, there were more killings by police in rural zip codes (319 cases, or 26% of killings) than in urban ones (292 cases, or 24%); the remainder of killings were in suburban areas, with a handful of cases undetermined. This marks a shift from previous years when the number of killings in cities outpaced rural deaths.

County sheriff’s departments, which tend to have jurisdiction over more rural and suburban areas and face less oversight, were responsible for 32% of killings last year; 10 years prior, sheriffs were involved in only 26% of killings.

Black Americans were killed at much higher rates

In 2023, Black people were killed at a rate 2.6 times higher than white people, Mapping Police Violence found. Last year, 290 people killed by police were Black, making up 23.5% of victims, while Black Americans make up roughly 14% of the total population. Native Americans were killed at a rate 2.2 times greater than white people, and Latinos were killed at a rate 1.3 times greater.

Black and brown people have also consistently been more likely to be killed while fleeing. From 2013 to 2023, 39% of Black people who were killed by police had been fleeing, typically either running or driving away. That figure is 35% for Latinos, 33% for Native Americans, 29% for white people and 22% for Asian Americans.

Albuquerque and New Mexico had the deadliest rates

Police in New Mexico killed 23 people last year, making it the state with the highest number of fatalities per capita, with a rate of 10.9 killings per 1 million residents, Mapping Police Violence found.

In one New Mexico case in April, Farmington officers showed up to the wrong house and killed the resident, Robert Dotson, when he opened the door with a handgun. In November, an officer in Las Cruces near the border fatally shot Teresa Gomez after he questioned why she was parked outside a public housing complex.

Albuquerque, New Mexico’s most populous city, also ranked highest in killings per capita among the country’s 50 largest cities. Albuquerque police killed six people in 2023, while many cities with substantially larger populations, including San Jose and Honolulu, each killed only one civilian last year. Some advocates have said gun culture in the state, particularly in rural areas, could be a factor in the high rates of police violence.

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A spokesperson for the New Mexico governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in an email that she was “committed to promoting professional and constitutional policing”, and noted the governor signed a bill into law last year “aimed at increased accountability for those in this critical profession”. SB19 established a duty to intervene when officers witness certain unlawful uses of force; prohibited neck restraints and firing at fleeing vehicles; and required the establishment of a public police misconduct database.

Spokespeople for Albuquerque police did not respond to an inquiry on Friday.

Few officers face accountability

From 2013 to 2022, 98% of police killings have not resulted in officers facing charges, Mapping Police Violence reported.

This contributes to the steady rate of violence, said Joanna Schwartz, University of California, Los Angeles law professor and expert on how officers evade accountability for misconduct: “Even with public attention to police killings in recent years and unprecedented community engagement, it’s really business as usual. That means tremendous discretion given to police to use force whenever they believe it’s appropriate, very limited federal and state oversight of policing, and union agreements across the country that make it very difficult to effectively investigate, discipline or fire officers.”

Problem officers with repeated brutality incidents or killings frequently remain on the force or get jobs in other departments, she noted.

Some cities experienced decreases in lethal force

Some cities with histories of police brutality had notably few killings in 2023. St Louis police killed one person last year, and there were no killings recorded by Minneapolis, Seattle or Boston police.

“It suggests that even places with longstanding issues can see improvement. It’s not fixed that they always have to be this way,” Sinyangwe said.

Bandele noted that community violence prevention programs have helped reduce reliance on police and limit vulnerable people’s exposure to potentially lethal encounters. Denver has received national attention for its program sending civilian responders to mental health calls instead of police. A Brooklyn neighborhood last year experimented with civilian responders to 911 calls.

“Every week, someone who needs mental health care ends up killed by police,” Bandele said. “But there are alternative ways to respond.”

2023 saw record killings by US police. Who is most affected? (2024)
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