I want to mention a couple of my associates in this effort to create a national database of people killed by police, and to talk about our different approaches to how we collect and disseminate the information. We are not the only attempts to collect this information, but I feel as though we’re the broadest. I can also say that no one of us is comprehensive, but when all is said and done, we will all be.
The first, and I think the oldest private attempt at collecting this information is the The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation with its Stolen Lives Project. It predates the mass adoption of the internet, so there are no links, and they didn’t have the information-gathering technology we have now. Sometimes when researchers for Fatal Encounters try to follow up on some of the names mentioned in their publication, Stolen Lives Project, there’s no further information to be had. Visit their website, http://www.october22.org/, for information about their annual October 22nd National Day of Protest. I included the Stolen Lives Project names, ages, races, cities and dates going back until 2000 in the first spreadsheet designed for the crowd to fill in the blanks and submit to the FE database.
“Operation Ghetto Storm” written by Arlene Eisen, with preface by Kali Akuno, was published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Committee. It is also available, with other important resources at www.mxgm.org. This report certainly raised and advanced the issue of a racial imbalance in the killing of Americans by police.
Wikipedia has its List of killings by law enforcement officers in the United States. I think it had fewer names than the list compiled by Stolen Lives, but every incident had a link, which made it the most useful list when I began this project, and so I also included its links going back until 2000 in the first spreadsheet. It was far from comprehensive, though, and it included some dubious links, for example, security guards who were not law enforcement officers who killed people.
Killed By Police on Facebook began on May 1, 2013. For recent police-involved homicides, he’s got the most comprehensive list, and we communicate quite a bit. His links are currently being researched and incorporated into the Fatal Encounters database. I’d say his Facebook page is several steps above earlier list efforts because it generally includes a photo, a public give and take with “friends,” and a bit of analysis, for example, its creator (who prefers to remain anonymous), offers a daily count of how many people have been killed so far this year and since the beginning of his site. On Sept. 25, 2014, there were 1,560 incidents listed since the site began. He does all the work of collection on a daily basis, an enormous job for any one person.
Lists and links are good. The ability to share Killed by Police’ information can’t be underestimated in the effort to raise awareness of the issue of police-related homicides. Killed by Police’ list with links makes it a hell of a lot harder for the FBI to maintain its fiction that there are only 400 people killed a year by law enforcement, as do stories like this USA Today article (despite its utterly misleading headline). But here’s the thing, a list is only a list. It’s a finite thing from which little can be extrapolated. A list becomes less useful the longer it gets unless you’re only counting entries on the list. In order to drill down to things like race or cause of death or even location, you need a database, which is what Fatal Encounters has sought to be from the beginning, albeit only a first step toward making a comprehensive database. In fact, Facebook has made it almost impossible to look up individual dates. (The FiveThirtyEight blog called it Facebook’s algorithm in this excellent story about Killed by Police. I don’t find anything about Facebook particularly beneficent, and in fact, when part of their business strategy is to prevent a user from getting at information in order to force them to look at ever increasing numbers of ads, I’d call them malevolent.) I go to KBP on an almost daily basis to see what the new developments are.
I want to talk about another effort that uses crowdsourcing to populate its spreadsheets before I talk about mine. We’re loosely collaborating, and while I’ve never spoken to Kyle Wagner of Deadspin about his different strategy, I can surmise that his database will be useful in different ways than Fatal Encounters. I can also say with some certainty that when our two databases are combined, and the crowd is then asked to fill in the blanks of the single database created by our combined efforts, we’re going to have the comprehensive national database of police violence the United States needs and deserves. I’ll be honest, though, I hope the Department of Justice picks up the data collection before we combine our information. On the other hand, though, the FBI has been lying for so long, I’m not sure I’ll believe them if they do start collecting and disseminating more complete information. Maybe a better hope would be for a nonprofit or university to pick up the data collection.
Deadspin is collecting more information in some areas and less in others than Fatal Encounters. For example, he collects information on all shootings, whether there was someone hit or killed or not. He’s also collecting officers’ names, whether the victim was armed or unarmed, types of weapons used, number of shots fired.
He does not intentionally collect information about deaths caused by means other than gunfire. He doesn’t collect information below city (street address or zip code) or the mental state of the decedents.
The key difference between Deadspin’s project and Fatal Encounters is that while Deadspin better allows researchers to investigate particular incidents and individual officers, Fatal Encounters is more useful for spotting regional trends and differences over time. Both are sensible strategies.
From the beginning, people have asked me why I didn’t collect the type of information that Deadspin does. The reasons are simple: I’m an old-school journalist, and from the start, I intended Fatal Encounters’ database to be backed with public documents. The crowd-sourced part of the project was going to be public records requests. As I mentioned in the “Why FE Exists” post, I knew that the instant I or anyone else made a public records request of a law enforcement agency that included asking for officers’ names or things that could be interpreted part of the investigative process, it would be turned down in many states.
I’ve written fairly extensively about the lengths the FBI went to to avoid releasing public information. Here’s another example. In this one, one of the highest law enforcement officers in the state of Idaho basically says she doesn’t care what the law is or that she doesn’t understand it, then promises to deliver the documents but only if I’d pay up to thousands of dollars for the privilege (and at the end, I was just asking for the two- or three-page printout of the results of a search she had already said existed), then, of course, she fails to deliver. I don’t have the money to file an appeal in the district court, and of course, Lead Deputy Attorney General Stephanie A. Altig knows this, as does her boss, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. This is how the game is played.
To make a long story short, I didn’t want to request what I knew I had neither the time nor resources to get. But besides that, I knew if I didn’t ask for it, I’d often get it anyway since most states don’t make an exception for public employees’ names. Police officers’ names are always part of the report, and if an agency then illegally redacts them, you have something to show a judge. They often do it anyway, and then they charge you for the privilege. But, too, I was most concerned about influencing policy, which meant that individual acts weren’t what I was concerned with. I wanted people to be able to look at a region or city and say, “They kill fewer people in the Northeast than they do in the West, shouldn’t we look at why they have better outcomes” or “Wow, they have fewer vehicular homicides in places where they don’t have high-speed pursuits, maybe we can change that policy.”
Aside from the policy stuff, though, I have two longer range plans for the Fatal Encounters data. First, I want to compare zip codes to U.S. Census Bureau data to determine the socio-economic demographics of where people get killed. I think we acknowledge this anecdotally, but since the numbers are withheld from us, we can’t yet prove that the single largest determining factor about whether people get killed by police is not race, not gender, not mental state, but how much money people have. The other thing I hope to do is to compare names to Veteran’s Administration roles. I think we’ll find a huge percentage of the people killed by police are veterans.
At any rate, I hope this post will help people to understand that no single effort that is being worked on is complete unto itself, and my site is just one step in a long series of steps to create a comprehensive database of people killed by police, since our government has refused to despite the 1994 law ordering the Department of Justice to collect the data. It’s going to take more than a village; it’s going to take the whole crowd.