Eight months before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis after he allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill, Byron Williams, a 50-year-old black man in Las Vegas, was pulled over by police because he didn’t have a light on his bicycle. Williams tried to run away, then followed orders to lie on the ground; when an officer put a knee in Williams’s back, he struggled to breathe. Then the officers dragged him around the corner and, according to family members who reviewed body-cam footage, exchanged high-fives and laughed. Like Floyd, Williams’s last words were “I can’t breathe.”
It’s another one of the roughly 28,000 fatal encounters citizens have had with the police in the U.S., since the year 2000, documented in a new data visualization called Their Names that pulls data from a research project called Fatal Encounters. The data has been visualized in other ways in the past, but the new site makes it easier to see each personal story—and to see the sheer scale of police violence. Close to 6,000 of the victims are black, with an additional 9,000 victims listed as “race unspecified.”
“The uprising came about because of one person and one video, but it’s not about that,” says Kim Albrecht, a Berlin-based designer who works in a transdisciplinary research group at Harvard called Metalab, who worked on the visualization with his colleague Matthew Battles. “It’s about something that is much, much larger. It is much broader. The page that we’ve made is basically a reference to that. It’s showcasing that this is a huge thing that is not about this one individual. It is, but it is about so much more at the same time. [We were] finding a representation for that, and finding a way to make that visible.”
The list includes people who didn’t die directly at the hands of the police, but who died because of a chain of events caused by the police—like Dillan Harris, a 13-year-old boy who was sitting in a stroller in Chicago as his mother waited for a bus when a car fleeing the police jumped over the curb and struck the stroller, dragging Harris down the block and killing him. His mother sued the police, who had been told to stop the chase—at times reaching speeds over 60 miles an hour on city streets—because of the danger to pedestrians. And it includes people who died while police were present.
The visualization displays the names by year, with options to sort by age, gender, ethnicity, location, and cause of death. By listing each individual, along with details about their story, the project gives meaning to each death. Albrecht says that he wanted to take a different approach than most other visualizations of police fatalities. “Most of the graphic representations have bar charts over time, where one rectangle represents 100 or 1,000 deaths, or you have a map where the shade of color represents the number of deaths per state,” he says. “To me, it felt so wrong to reduce the lives of so many people to a shade of red. It feels like completely the wrong approach. It made me think, how can we work with that to allow for a look that gives this data more justice.”
Correction: We’ve updated the headline of this article to reflect that the database includes people who died while police were present, not just who were killed by police.