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I’m sometimes surprised–but not really–by how little we know about police-involved violence and death in this country. I’m going to share some thoughts on the topic. They probably won’t change your life, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll help you see how valuable Fatal Encounters’ work is and maybe encourage you to help us raise money to continue it. I think this will take me more than one post, so I’m going to go ahead and call this Part 1.
The main reason people in this country don’t know anything about the scope of police violence–but believe they do–is because the federal government allowed inaccurate information to flourish for decades. It’s really hard for me not to call it lying.
But let’s be fair. The federal government, which annually enumerated the people killed by police for 30 years that the national media regurgitated, wasn’t really lying. The federal government simply didn’t correct the news media when the news media accurately reported the government’s wildly incomplete numbers but failed to mention the caveats that stipulated that government researchers were only collecting a small percentage of the data.
Did I say that clearly? In 2013, the Department of Justice put out a statement that said 471 people died in Justifiable Homicides, which the DoJ defined as the “killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” News media across the nation repeated the number. Check out this headline from USA Today in 2014: “Local police involved in 400 killings per year.” That headline appeared after Fatal Encounters data had been reported in the national news media showing officer-involved deaths being three times that.
What I see now is very similar to what I saw in 2012 when I started this project. The data is so fragmented and the sources are so lacking in authority and comprehensiveness that it is difficult tell what the truth is.
For example, the Washington Post’s project, which was founded upon Fatal Encounters data, only talks about people who die by gunshots. But since WaPo has the loudest voice, people believe about a thousand people a year die by police violence, and that deaths are caused by gunshots.
Last week, Reuter’s did an awesome series about the police-involved deaths that implicated stun guns in the United States. Again, Fatal Encounters data was foundational. And now, Reuters has the most comprehensive database of stun gun implicated deaths. (By the way, they count deaths prior to 2000 and include many post-booking deaths, neither of which fit in our dataset.) That’s about 59 a year.
In December, USA Today did a phenomenal investigative piece that showed black people are four times more likely to die during police chases than white people. I’d like to say Fatal Encounters data was foundational, but it wasn’t. Still, we immediately incorporated their data, though. If you were to look at their dataset, it’s about 350 a year.
If a person were to combine WaPo, Reuter’s, and USA Today data, they’d think around 1,400 people died every year from police violence. You know who wouldn’t fit in this dataset? Eric Garner. He died when an NYPD officer killed him with an illegal chokehold (Edit: My friend points out that the chokehold was against policy, as opposed to illegal. I think it’s an important distinction, but I have to wonder if I used the maneuver against someone for resisting my efforts to make them stop selling loose cigarettes, whether the distinction would be made.) Another would be Micah Johnson, who police blew up with a robot-delivered bomb connected after Johnson fired upon a group of police officers in Dallas, Texas, killing five officers and injuring nine others. Freddie Gray is another who would not fit in WaPo’s, Reuters’ or USA Today’s datasets. He died during a rough ride in a police vehicle.
We’re not trying to judge the morality of any killing. We’re just trying to ascertain a true number so people, agencies and scholars can do an accurate analysis in order to inform policy decisions.
In summary, the first way the mainstream news media fails to inform the public about the true scope of deadly police violence is that they underestimate deaths by 18 percent, and they fragment the data so a normal person can’t piece it together.
D. Brian Burghart
Executive Director, FatalEncounters.org