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The U.S. Doesn’t Track Deaths By Police, So Citizens Are Doing It

Absent a federal law requiring police to report deaths on their watch, citizens are stepping in.

The U.S. Doesn’t Track Deaths By Police, So Citizens Are Doing It
[Photo: Flickr user Alison Klein, WEBN News 2008]

Michael Brown. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Those are just four of the unarmed black men killed by on-duty police officers in the last year. How many deaths there were in total, surprisingly, no one actually knows. That’s because there is no federal law in place that requires every incident of police violence and homicide by a police officer to be collated in one place.

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When it comes to overall crime, there is a wealth of data available to law enforcement, governments, and researchers through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, which compiles crime statistics of virtually every criminal act in the United States. But the UCR is very crucially defunct in one metric: the number of incidents of homicide by law enforcement. And there, the UCR only reports two points of data: people killed by police in justifiable action and the weapon used in those homicides. The UCR does not report non-justified police-induced deaths, nor does it include all the deaths by police that were deemed “justified.” In fact, out of the 17,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States, only 750, or 4.4% of them, submitted death-by-police data to the FBI in the most recent year available.

“Frankly, this government knows who I call on my cell phone, who I email, and probably even the contents of those calls and emails. The fact that it doesn’t keep track of the names of the people it kills, and the circumstances under which it killed them, is beyond my comprehension,” says D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review, and founder of Fatal Encounters, a project that crowdsources media accounts and public records to create a national database of people killed by law enforcement.

Alongside Killed by Police, which scours local media for reports of officer-involved homicides, Fatal Encounters may be the most thorough aggregator of such incidents, tracking killings between January 1, 2000, and the present. Among its findings so far: there are about 1,110 police homicides per year, or about three a day; African-Americans account for about three in 10 deaths, and whites roughly half.

D. Brian Burghart, founder of Fatal Encounters Photo: courtesy of Eric Marks

Earlier this month, the Guardian launched “The Counted,” a reported and crowdsourced chronicle of deaths by police throughout 2015, based partly on Burghart’s open-source database. According to the Guardian‘s analysis, of the 464 people killed so far this year in incidents with law enforcement up to May 31, 102 were unarmed, and black Americans were more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during those encounters as white people were.

Burghart and a team of 20 volunteers have collected over 7,000 records, with comprehensive data for 15 states and partial data for the rest of the U.S. “These numbers are tracked in most developed countries,” says Burghart. “My feeling is, just as with other data, if the government collected this data, law enforcement would use it to modify policies and procedures.”

While criminologists say that police-involved homicides in the U.S. are at their lowest point in history, scrutiny from the public–abetted by cell-phone cameras–has forced these incidents, and the lack of detail about them, into new relief.

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A partial map of fatal encounters with police since January 1, 2000, as assembled by Burghart and volunteers.

Washington is making efforts to collect more data. Last month, the White House announced an initiative to gather data at an initial 21 police departments around the country, “to increase transparency, build community trust, and support innovation,” as well as “to identify problems, increase internal accountability, and decrease inappropriate uses of force,” which were recommendations made in December by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Meanwhile, a bill proposed last month by Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Barbara Boxer (D-California), called the Police Reporting of Information, Data and Evidence Act, would require states to collect information whenever police maim or kill anyone.

For now, Burghart says it’s up to the public to police the police. The ultimate goal of Fatal Encounters is to become obsolete, replaced by a public database that Burghart believes could help establish better relations between the public and police. Until then, he says, “This is about the most depressing hobby I ever heard of.”

A Database Of The Dead

Despite incidents like the atrocious murder of Walter Scott by a white police officer in South Carolina in early April, Burghart says it’s important to keep in mind that most law enforcement officers don’t like to open fire. “Some of my reporting in the Reno News & Review has shown that officers almost always have severe psychological and emotional trauma when they kill somebody in the line of duty,” he says.

Burghart also stresses that in many cases, police homicides are justifiable. “Every human being has the right to defend themselves. I’ve looked at thousands of these things now, and most are clearly self-defense.”

But that justification doesn’t excuse the lack of data. Alongside the right to defend oneself, Burghart is also an outspoken defender of the public’s right to know who and how and why public servants kill. “These are public employees paid with tax dollars. This is how we are supposed to manage our government personnel in this country.”

The idea for Fatal Encounters came in May 2012, when Burghart drove past a group of police cars on the side of the road. After turning on his police scanner, he found out that the police had shot and killed the driver of a stolen car (a man named Jace Herndon). Yet once the news reports appeared, Burghart was shocked to discover no reports of the police shooting. “And then a few months later,” Burghart wrote on his site, “an 18-year-old, naked and unarmed college student, Gil Collar, was killed by University of South Alabama police on Dec. 6, 2012. Early reports said the officer never got within five feet of the kid, and no nonlethal methods were tried. ‘Wow, how often does that happen?'”

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Burghart soon discovered that there was no adequate database by which citizens, researchers, or law enforcement can track trends in officer-involved homicides across regions or time. “I don’t think [the absence of statistics] says that much about law enforcement, but more about government,” says Burghart.

I ask if there’s any trends that can be extrapolated from the current amount of data Fatal Encounters has collected. There are some, says Burghart. “People of color are killed at greater rates than they exist in the population. Mentally ill people are a high percentage, maybe 25-30% of the people killed by police, particularly when you consider that drug abuse is considered a mental illness. Most people, around 96%, of people killed by police are men.”

It also appears that police in Western states kill more people than police in Eastern ones, though Burghart stresses that could change when data for larger states like Florida are complete.

Burghart notes that the current crowdsourced data is revealing, not only about police homicides, but also about the way homicides by police are reported by the media.

“The race of both victims and police are not reported by media far too often,” he says. “The media gutlessly lets police withhold names of people they’ve killed on the thinnest of rationales. Media rarely get photos of victims from families, so often the only publicly available image is a mug shot, which of course, works to support the narrative that the person killed is a career criminal.”

He also notes that in the data collected, it becomes evident that the official dispositions of officer-involved homicides are rarely reported. “It seems as though the media just assumes if an officer killed somebody, it’s justified, but that creates a de facto collusion to tell the law enforcement story, but not another side.”

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Cause of death and cause of death by race during police encountersGraphic: via Fatal Encounters

Fatal Encounters offers five different tools to help the public track and build the largest known database of police homicides. The first tool is the morbidly named Database of the Dead, which allows users to access records of people who have been killed by law enforcement. Maps are another popular tool, allowing people to visualize police homicides by location over time. Other tools include a database of law enforcement agencies that people can contact for public records requests, a tool to submit incidents of fatal encounters with police, and a tool that allows the public to download the data for their own use.

Eventually, Burghart hopes that better data and projects like his and the Guardian’s “The Counted” won’t just assist journalists and researchers, but help communities and police departments identify which policies and scenarios tend to lead to a use of lethal force.

“Comparing this data to other giant data sources, we’ll be able to research whether veterans are killed at a high rate. We’ll be able to see the effects of poverty on policing and officer-involved homicides. We’ll be able to see which communities kill mentally ill people, and at what rates. We’ll be able to see if communities where police kill more people, have more people killing police.”

From Public Records To Crowdsourcing Media Reports

When Fatal Encounters began in March 2014, the database was assembled from media reports and public records, but Burghart soon discovered how challenging making requests for even public data could be. Dozens of public records requests he’s made at the federal level and in several states have become ensnarled in bureaucracy and a patchwork of record-keeping systems.

The responses he’s received have run the gamut, he says, “from sending the information without comment or delay”–he’s had relative success with police departments in Texas, Nevada, and Idaho–“to a delayed response to the law in such a way as to make the information useless, to outright refusal to obey public records laws, and challenging me to sue for the information to which every American is entitled.”

Two victims listed on Fatal Encounters

Fatal Encounters now relies on a team of 20 volunteers who sort through crowdsourced data to fill in gaps in public records. Using the tools on its website, more than 1,000 people have contributed incidents of police homicide directly to Fatal Encounters. All crowdsourced reports must be submitted with supporting evidence, including government or media reports of the homicide. The Fatal Encounters team then checks the information submitted against any other public accounts of the incident. If everything checks out, it’s added to the database.

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“I check the information submitted against the published accounts, which is not true fact checking, since I’m not calling primary sources, but our records at least reflect what’s in the public record,” Burghart admits. “In other words, if it’s wrong in our database, it was probably wrong in the original media reports.” He also notes that Fatal Encounters receives corrections and clarifications several times a week.

What the Data Reveals About The Police (And The Media)

In one video produced by Fatal Encounter volunteers, which shows police homicides over time, it’s not hard to be startled by the trend line in the lower left-hand corner. It steadily increases until 2011-2012, when it begins to radically spike. But Burghart cautions that true conclusions can’t be drawn just yet.

“While I believe police homicides are increasing, we don’t have the data to prove that yet,” he says. “Part of the apparent increase is because of the growth of the Internet–which means we have access to more information each year progressing from 2000. Part of that is because in the early 2000s, digital memory was expensive, so media outlets routinely purged their archives. Also, because of the crowdsourced aspect, people tend to remember the more recent homicides, so they are more likely to report those.”

Video of fatal encounters with police, 2000-2014, by Andrew B. Cooper, associate professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University

Burghart hopes that his data collection may get a bit easier in the future, thanks to The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the White House’s new Police Data Initiative. In December, the report specifically advised that “policies on use of force should also require agencies to collect, maintain, and report data to the Federal Government on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death.”

Yet as most policing is done on a state and local level, the federal government has little control over forcing police agencies to submit to the request; currently, the White House is only threatening to withhold 10% of federal grants from police departments who receive federal funds and who refuse to comply. Meanwhile, the White House’s Police Data Initiative will begin with an initial set of 21 police departments who have committed to releasing a total of 121 data sets including uses of force, police pedestrian and vehicle stops, and officer-involved shootings.

“The problem for me is that all this stuff takes time to set up, and things change quickly,” he says. He points to other research that’s been vulnerable to the political climate: AIDS in the 1980s, studies of gun violence by the Centers For Disease Control, or research on climate change or sex education. “The start of studies is widely reported, but the gradual defunding is quiet.”

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Burghart also questions the logic behind the 21 police departments that are initially participating in the White House’s police data initiative. “One issue with the communities selected is that they seem to enhance the myth that police violence is primarily an urban problem. That’s not what data shows.”

Until there’s a national legislative push to require all police departments to transparently report all data surrounding police homicides, it will be up left to nonprofits like Fatal Encounters and its volunteers to fill the gaps.

“We literally have an army of volunteers out there, helping with data entry, helping with a redesign of the site, doing visualizations, doing research with the data.” Burghart notes that the only things that stand between a comprehensive public database of police homicides is time and money, and he’s seeking people who can donate either or both. “The government ignored the need to comprehensively collect this information for a very long time,” Burghart says, “and there’s a lot of data to collect.”