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Shawn Vestal: However you slice the numbers, we have a lot of police shootings

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

The claim has been around for a while now, raised often by police critics: Spokane has the third-deadliest police force in the country.

That assertion is based on a data analysis by Mapping Police Violence, a website operated by police-reform advocates. The site compiles and analyzes data from police departments all over the country to examine police brutality, accountability efforts and other categories of information about policing in our cities.

The website shows that Spokane’s rate of police shootings is among the highest in the country – 9.9 shootings per year per 1 million in population. Among the 100 largest departments in the country, Spokane ranks third, behind St. Louis (16.9) and Oklahoma City (10.4).

That rate is based on Spokane’s 17 police shootings from 2013 to 2020 and its 2018 population of 214,000. That’s a little more than two a year, on average.

Police Chief Craig Meidl posted a video to YouTube recently challenging what he termed a “dangerous and misleading narrative circulating in our community.”

In it, he notes the Mapping Police Violence ranking and suggests it is misleadingly presented.

“What they don’t tell you, a little-known fact, is their data is based on a population of 1 million,” Meidl said. “Spokane does not have a population of 1 million. In order to get to that 1 million threshold they use, we would have to multiply the Spokane population by almost five.”

Meidl argues that using 1 million as a basis of comparison distorts the truth, and uses a couple of examples of the way such a calculation would work with small towns – giving Wapato a rate in the 50s, for example.

It’s true that the website uses a rate-per-million comparison, but it’s not true that “they don’t tell you” that.

Among other places, it’s stated right on the graphic showing the comparison: “Avg Police Killing Rate per 1M, 2013-2020.”

It’s also true that every other department on that list is given a rate based on a population of 1 million. Many of the departments have populations below 1 million, and so the resulting rates-by-population are higher in many cases than the actual raw numbers.

Using 1 million as the base figure for calculating the rate is unusual – calculating per 100,000 in population for demographic purposes is more common. The higher base produces a rate that is higher than the raw numbers, unless a city has more than a million people, in which case it would produce a lower figure.

For example, the department with the fourth-highest rate of shootings, right behind Spokane, is Phoenix. It has a population of 1.6 million and had 125 police killings in that seven-year period. Its annual rate of 9.7 per million is actually lower than its actual number of shootings – which is almost 18 per year.

But as Ed Byrnes, a professor of social work at Eastern Washington University who has done a lot of research with police statistics, pointed out, using the 1 million figure does not change the ranking of departments at all. It does not change where Spokane stands on the question relative to other departments.

To help me with my limited math skills, Byrnes walked me through several examples of population-based comparisons to show how rates might change: A city of 200,000 with five police shootings a year would have an annual rate of 0.25 per 10,000, or 2.5 per 100,000, or 25 per million.

At the end of the day, though, if you use the same yardstick to measure all the cities, the rate will change, but the order of the cities will not. The comparison remains the same.

“If you apply the same base (population) to every case, the rankings are not going to change,” he said.

In other words, if you used the same number of police shootings with a 100,000 population, or a 10,000 population, Spokane would still have the third-most police shootings per capita.

Third – no matter how you slice it.

Which you might think might be the main issue here.

If you throw out the population-based comparison entirely, what you see in the raw data is Spokane had more police shootings over that seven-year period than many larger cities.

Boston, with a population of about 680,000, had 13 shootings during the time Spokane had 17.

Nashville, Tennessee, with a population about three times Spokane’s, had 13.

Oakland, California, with about twice our population, had 11.

Lots of other larger cities had fewer shootings, too, including Minneapolis; Anaheim, California; Cincinnati; Omaha, Nebraska; Arlington, Texas; Corpus Christi, Texas; New Orleans; Tampa, Florida; Miami; Toledo, Ohio; and Cleveland.

And what you don’t see on that list are cities of roughly Spokane’s size with significantly more shootings.

There could be many reasons for this. Police shootings can vary across cities for many reasons, including factors such as the violent crime rate. The number itself doesn’t answer the main question that it raises: Why?

But it is neither dangerous nor misleading to note the truth of it.

We’re No. 3.

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