How an Orlando data scientist is helping #BlackLivesMatter make the case against police violence

Statistical Justice


As Florida and the rest of world watched George Zimmerman walk away scot-free after a jury acquitted him of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, a still-troubled nation questioned whether race played a role in the teenager’s death.

But for Samuel Sinyangwe, it was clear. The Stanford University graduate, who was living in San Francisco during that summer of 2013, remembered growing up as a black child in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood. While privileged enough to enroll in private schools and Winter Park High School’s International Baccalaureate program, being friends with the white kids near his home was hard when racial slurs tumbled out of their mouths as easily as a laugh. He was familiar with Sanford, the city where Martin was killed, because he went there constantly for soccer practice. And like Martin did on that fateful night of Feb. 26, 2012, Sinyangwe would stop by a 7-Eleven on his way home from school to pick up an Arizona sweet tea and a pack of Starburst or Skittles.

“I was not physically in Orlando, but it hit me very hard,” Sinyangwe, 25, says. “I was that kid. I could have been Trayvon. That’s why it hit me so personally and that’s why I realized that needed to be something that took the priority in terms of my focus.”

Because he felt such a connection with Martin, Zimmerman’s acquittal also had a second effect on Sinyangwe – it radicalized him and refocused his work as a data scientist on issues of state violence and police violence. So when Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white police officer and left on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, for four hours in 2014, Sinyangwe knew what he had to do.

He sent a message to DeRay McKesson, one of the many activists who traveled to Ferguson to participate in the weeks-long protests, via Twitter. “What can I do to help?”Sinyangwe asked.

McKesson sent him his phone number and asked him to call. “We got on the phone that day,” Sinyangwe says, and “we’ve been on the phone ever since.”

As they were working to understand the issues surrounding Brown’s death and the deaths of other African-Americans at the hands of police officers, they discovered something puzzling. The federal government did not have a comprehensive national database of people killed by police. Even more troubling, what the federal government was reporting severely undercounted the number of people killed by police by a margin of 2 to 1, Sinyangwe says.

In the two years since Brown's death, Sinyangwe and a group of activists created Campaign Zero, a platform that presents comprehensive policy solutions in the hopes of getting the number of people killed by officers to zero. Before any policy solutions, though, they had to know where they stood. Using data, they tried to find the elusive answer to the question: How many people have police killed and why?


The FBI reported that law enforcement officers across the country had justifiably killed 426 people in 2012. In the same year, D. Brian Burghart discovered that wasn't true.

Burghart was driving home from his job as editor-publisher of the Reno News & Review in May 2012 when he saw a closed-off neighborhood filled with about 20 cop cars. From the chaos, he inferred an officer was dead or had killed someone. Still curious when he got home, he cracked open a bottle of wine and started searching online for the number of people killed by police in Nevada. He found previous numbers the FBI had put out, but they didn't have any other information attached.

A few months later, he revisited the idea when Gil Collar, an 18-year-old student at the University of South Alabama, was shot and killed by a police officer. Collar was on synthetic drugs and naked the night he died in October 2012.

"At that point, I decided to dig in," he says.

Using public records, online articles and crowdsourcing, Burghart found that in 2013, 1,271 people were killed during interactions with police. In 2014, that number increased to 1,295, and by 2015, it was 1,299. From 2008 to 2014, the average number of people killed by police was around 419 people per year, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Why the discrepancy?

Burghart says he found through his work that the data collected by the FBI was only coming from a fraction of police departments across the country. The Wall Street Journal says it found in a 2014 investigation that "among 105 of the largest police departments in the country, about 45 percent of killings by officers went unreported to the [FBI] between 2007 and 2012. Currently, reporting is optional and records from nearly every agency in three large states, Florida, New York and Illinois, aren't in the FBI's data." Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2000, which required states to report to the attorney general on a quarterly basis when people died while in police custody. But the law, which had no power behind it, expired in 2006. In 2014, the law was updated to require states to report the number of people killed by police to the Department of Justice.

"The government keeps track of anything that matters, like the number of shoes imported from China," Burghart says. "The fact that they don't keep track of the number of people they kill suggests it didn't matter."

After Mike Brown's death in Ferguson, activists tried to pinpoint the same numbers Burghart and another organization, Killed by Police, were already tracking. Sinyangwe says the data the two organizations collected was almost complete, but it lacked the race of victims and detailed information about the deaths. Sinyangwe, along with a team of other activists, combed through the data for months and scrounged through victims' social media pages for more information.

The end result: Mapping Police Violence, a website that breaks down the data into visualizations any reader can understand.

The group found that out of the 1,152 people killed by police officers in 2015, 336 of those people were black. African-Americans made up about 30 percent of the number of people killed, despite being 13.2 percent of the U.S. population. The Washington Post and the Guardian also created databases that tallied how many people police killed, and based on different requirements, respectively found that 984 and 1,140 people were killed in 2015. At a private meeting last October, FBI Director James Comey lamented "that the federal government has no better data on police shootings than databases assembled this year by the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper," the Post reports.

"You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to The Martian, which I saw this weekend," Comey said, according to the Post. "The CDC can do the same with the flu. It's ridiculous – it's embarrassing and ridiculous – that we can't talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force."

At the end of last year, the Guardian reported the Bureau of Justice Statistics launched a program to begin tracking how many people police had killed. Around the same time, the FBI also announced it was overhauling its system for a more comprehensive database. Earlier in 2015, the Guardian reported that only 224 of 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country reported fatal shootings by officers to the FBI in 2014.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson Steve Arthur says the agency doesn't collect data in the same format the FBI does.

"These coding differences, coupled with the fact that we do not provide them with data on a monthly basis, means they do not always publish all of the data we give them," he says.

The FDLE typically has a 98 to 99 percent participation rate among the state's law enforcement agencies. In 2015, FDLE reported 56 people had been justifiably killed by an officer, according to a supplemental homicide report. In the same WSJ investigation, the publication found Florida had not participated in the FBI's national tally since 1996.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina says from 2010 to 2015, 11 people have been involved in fatal officer-involved shootings and three people have died while in OPD custody. All 14 are men, and out of those, 10 are black and four are white.

Mina says his agency already has in place many of the recommendations put forth by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, including purchasing body cameras, having an outside agency investigate officer-involved shootings, creating a policy specific to searches of transgender people and not releasing suspects' criminal history in officer-involved shootings, which can create a "us versus them" mentality. OPD is also the first agency in Florida to participate in the White House's Police Data Initiative.

"We either implemented or have been doing many of the recommendations in the Task Force report," Mina says. "We're at 90 percent already. Orlando is a very progressive police department."

Sinyangwe says he spoke with OPD officials about their use-of-force policy and recommended changes, specifically in regard to the policy that authorizes officers to hog-tie people, also known as the four-point restraint, and another policy that allows officers to shoot at moving vehicles. Mina says OPD's four-point restraint policy doesn't allow people to be placed on their stomachs, only on their sides. He adds that training staff is taking a "hard look" at the policy regarding shooting at moving vehicles.

Mapping Police Violence found the homicide rate for black people by police in Orlando was almost double the amount than for all races in 2014. New York and Florida have similar size populations, but three times as many people are killed by police in the Sunshine State than in New York.

"We pay our tax dollars to the police to protect and serve us," Sinyangwe says. "It's their job to do that. So they should take personal responsibility in upholding and performing their job with the level of quality that is in line with what the citizenry demands."


Almost 121 years ago, journalist and advocate Ida B. Wells published The Red Record, a 100-page pamphlet that includes statistics on three years of American lynchings.

The lynchings of two friends inspired Wells to document the cases by combing through newspapers. Sometimes, she found an alleged crime; other times, black people were being lynched for no offense at all.

"In slave times, the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed," Wells wrote. "Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men, during the past 30 years in the South, have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than 10,000 Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution."

From the end of the Civil War in the 19th century to the 1950s, thousands of African-Americans, mostly men, were lynched in Southern states, according to a recent report from the Equal Justice Initiative.

"Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials," the EJI's 2015 report states. "These lynchings were terrorism."

Last year, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry compared Sinyangwe's work of collecting data for the Mapping Police Violence project to Wells' Red Record.

"You remind me in this work of Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist of the turn of the century," Harris-Perry told Sinyangwe when he appeared on her show in May 2015. "The first part of what she did was compile the data, the social science and research about how, when and where lynchings were happening to begin to make it stop."

In a similar way, work by Sinyangwe and media outlets on tracking police killings, along with protests from the Black Lives Matter movement, helped convince America there was a problem. A Pew Research Center poll from last year said 59 percent of Americans now believe changes are needed to give African-Americans equal rights, up from the 46 percent of Americans who responded to a Pew poll in 2014.

Matthew Nichter, a historical sociologist who works as a professor at Rollins College, says Mapping Police Violence, the work of Ida B. Wells, and data collection by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's research department during the Civil Rights Movement all represent an effort to prove to critics that black people aren't exaggerating when they talk about institutional violence, and that the deaths of Brown, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner weren't just caused by officers who were "bad apples."

"If you look at surveys of people, white versus black, white folks tend to perceive police as the guys who come get your cat out of a tree," he says. "I think that's why data is so critical. There's widespread obliviousness on the part of the white majority because we still live in such a segregated society. The experience we have in the suburbs is different than police presence in urban black areas."

Sinyangwe and the rest of Campaign Zero's planning team, which includes Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and DeRay McKesson, have been a part of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing and met with 2016 presidential candidates. McKesson, who is running for mayor in Baltimore, says Sinyangwe's policy knowledge is "incredible," and he was one of the first people to realize the potential of visualizing and mapping the data.

"Sam led the creation of those. I think it's important that there's an activist-centered data force that just presents the data without a spin," he says. "We did not think the media was asking these questions. ... It had the power to influence the Guardian and the Washington Post and continues to be a resource for activists across the country."

Sinyangwe can't deny that his work for the movement has taken its toll. Before he joined, he was working at a comfortable job with PolicyLink that had a good income. Now he crashes on friends' couches across the country as he gives talks at universities. Sinyangwe says his family is supportive and his girlfriend keeps him grounded in his workaholic lifestyle.

"I knew that this is the work that needed to be done in this moment," he says. "It's rare that you get a window of opportunity like this where as a nation we're paying attention to this vital issue. I had to make a choice. And there's so much work left to be done."