Of the 3000 counties in the United States, the 13 with the highest rates of police killings also rank among the top 30 in death sentences imposed.
The Washington Post‘s Radley Balko reports that these figures show “a pretty remarkable correlation between counties that produce a lot of death sentences and counties where cops kill a lot of people.” Kern County, California, has sentenced 26 people to death row since 1976, putting it in the top 25 in the country. Kern County police have killed 79 people since 2005, or about 8 per year, earning the county the nation’s top spot in per capita police killing rate.
Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, is second nationwide in both death sentences and per capita killings by police. San Bernardino, California, is third in per capita police killings and eleventh in death sentences. While the thirteen jurisdictions with the highest police killing rates are all top death-sentencing counties, they are otherwise diverse in size, murder rate, and demographics.
The common denominator, according to Balko, is the district attorneys, who “set the tone” for all law enforcement officers and officials in their districts. Balko points out that the counties with the most death sentences also tend to have histories of prosecutorial abuse and misconduct. Similarly, district attorneys can significantly impact the police shooting rate because they are the chief law enforcers in their counties and the officials typically responsible for investigating officer-involved shootings. “It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a ‘win at all costs’ approach to fighting crime,” Balko concludes, “that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself.”