How R Has Been Used to Look at Issues of Race and Policing

The last few weeks have brought global protests over police violence against black people and other people of color. These protests have sprung up in response to the death of George Floyd, but their size shows that they are about more than the brutal killing of one man.

The breadth and depth of a complex and multifaceted problem such as police violence is often hard to quantify. That’s why it’s so important that groups exist that are collecting, organizing, and sharing data related to police accountability. This work often involves using R.

In 2016, Wesley Lowery and several other reporters and data journalists at the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Price for their series on police shootings. The series has continued to this day, showing that African Americans are killed by police at astonishingly high rates.

Screenshot from the Washington Post article on police shootings
Screenshot from the Washington Post article on police shootings

In addition to the data analysis and visualizations that Washington Post staff put together, the newspaper makes the data available for anyone to work with.

A June 12 New York Times article shows another aspect of the problem: the growth of police budgets. In many cities, the last 40 years have seen police budgets skyrocket.

Although I don’t know what tools reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times are using for their analysis, there’s a good chance R is among them.

But you don’t have to work for an esteemed newspaper to conduct this type of analysis. Lauren Chambers of the ACLU in Massachusetts recently posted a Twitter thread about the Boston Police budget.

University of Michigan PhD candidate Peter Carroll also took publicly available data and created a visualization that shows the disproportionate impact of policies such as stop and frisk on people of color.

R alone does not have the power to solve these problems. Far from it. But, this type of analysis can clearly show the growth of police budgets combined with policing methods that disproportionately injure and kill African Americans. This data shows us the severity of the problems we must all work to change.

If you’re looking for data on this topic, check out this Google Sheet from the Data is Plural newsletter (the email sent with links is here). It’s got data on Black Lives Matter protests, police militarization, police violence, police contracts, and more.