The counties in the United States that have the highest per capita rate of killings by police officers also rank among the highest in the country in the number of people sentenced to death. In his criminal justice blog, “The Watch,” for the Washington Post, Radley Balko details the “remarkable correlation” between killings by police and death sentences imposed.

“There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States,” Balko writes. “But the 13 with the highest rates of police killings are not only all in death penalty states; they also all rank among the top 30 in death sentences meted out over the past 40 years.” These jurisdictions, which Balko describes as “America’s killingest counties,” all rank among the 2 percent of U.S. counties that account for more than half of America’s death row population.

Balko focuses on Kern County, California, where police have killed more civilians per capita than anywhere else in the country - 0.9 police killings per 100,000 residents - even though the city’s overall murder rate is, Balko says, “right at about the national average.” Kern “has also sent 26 people to death row since 1976, putting it among the top 25 in the country.”

In explaining the correlation between police killings and death sentences, Balko notes that “the counties that send the most people to death row also tend to be counties with histories of prosecutorial abuse and misconduct.” He suggests that, as “the chief law enforcement officers within their judicial districts[, district attorneys] set the tone for the entire area. They’re also typically in charge of investigating officer-involved shootings and other allegations of excessive force. It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a ‘win at all costs’ approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself.”


Radley Balko, The Watch: America’s Killingest Counties, Washington Post, December 32015

See Arbitrariness and Sentencing.