This project to create a comprehensive national database of people who are killed through interactions with police started with a simple question: How often does that happen?
May 18, 2012: I was on my way home from work when I noticed a bunch of cop cars down by the Truckee River. As the editor of a newspaper, the Reno News & Review, I was curious. We’re a weekly, so we don’t much cover the police beat—not the day-to-day stuff anyway—but it’s my nature to satisfy my curiosity. So when I got home, I turned on the scanner app on my cell phone, fired up my laptop, and poured a glass of red wine.
It turned out the police had pulled over a stolen car, and they’d shot and killed the driver. (Jace Herndon, 41, we found out later.) Honestly—and not because I’m one of those hard-boiled, cynical types—I wasn’t particularly surprised or offended. Criminals often come to a bad end.
But again, I’m an editor, so I noticed when a gaping hole appeared in every single news story I read about the incident. There was no context. I kept looking for a sentence that said something like “This was x person killed by police in Washoe County this year.”
But it was never there. I searched the web for a few minutes, came up short, and started doing something productive. I simply considered the missing information a failing of the local news media, and I moved on. Still, its absence bugged me. I felt as though I’d accidentally left my wallet on my nightstand; while I knew I could retrieve it if I needed to, not having it was bothersome.
And then a few months later, 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 non-lethal methods were tried. “Wow, how often does that happen?”
It was a national news story. But again, a complete lack of context. And this wasn’t some mid-sized city’s overburdened media workforce not reporting, these were the nation’s biggest news sources, like the Associated Press and the New York Times. I began to search in earnest, but nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. There are all kinds of articles that point out the lack of data, for example, here’s one from the New York Times in 2001. I kept returning to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s series Deadly Force (Nov. 28, 2011) “The nation’s leading law enforcement agency [FBI] collects vast amounts of information on crime nationwide, but missing from this clearinghouse are statistics on where, how often, and under what circumstances police use deadly force. In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life.”
Try as I might, I just can’t wrap my head around that idea. In the 21st century, the only reason this information would not be tracked, data-based and available to the public is because somebody somewhere decided Americans shouldn’t know how many people are killed by police and under what circumstances.
No giant Big Brother conspiracy theory necessary. The information is out there. It’s not censored or hidden, even if it is under-reported. Certainly, though, it’s uncollected by the logical entity to assemble it, the U.S. Department of Justice.
But it is out there.
Somebody just has to collect it. That is this project’s vision and goal: a comprehensive, searchable database of people who die for any reason through fatal police encounters.
Why no database?
The first thing reporters say to me when I say there is no national database of people killed by law enforcement is, “Bullshit.” Almost to a person, they believe I missed something somewhere, and the database exists. Almost no one questions whether it should exist; after all, agencies with nothing to hide would have nothing to fear from transparency. In the months since I started obsessing about this project, I’ve only had one person question whether this database should exist or whether my plan to assemble it is even “journalism.”
So, despite my certainty, I started looking systematically for it, keeping track while I was looking of other databases that might inform my efforts to make the information publicly available once I figured out how to collect it. The other thing I did was to talk to various colleagues at the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I teach beginning reporting.
And while I’m considered pretty tech savvy among the Luddites of print journalism, I know little to nothing about how to make a database that efficiently would work on the internet in a way that would allow people to search for relationships among many different types of related data. Eventually, other journalists, researchers and students offered technical help to getting this project off the ground. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
While I found many different and helpful types of lists and databases online that I have used to devise a strategy for collection and publication of this project, there are only a few that provided more than inspiration.
When they hear of my plan, many journalists and academics mention Homicide Watch D.C., http://homicidewatch.org: “Using original reporting, court documents, social media, and the help of victims’ and suspects’ friends, family, neighbors and others, we cover every homicide from crime to conviction.” It’s an incredible site and effort, allowing users to drill down by name, death date, age, gender, race, cause of death, incorporating location and public documents.
Here’s an awesome series called “Deadly Force: Police & the mentally ill,” which was published by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in December 2012: http://www.pressherald.com/special/Maine_police_deadly_force_series_final.html. This series shows that in many cases, police are obliging a death wish on the part of a mentally ill person.
I hesitate to say it, but the most comprehensive list of people killed by police that I found was on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_killings_by_law_enforcement_officers_in_the_United_States. It’s a good effort, far wider than it is deep, but it links to more than a thousand possible instances, and it’s going to, with caveats, be included in the first version of my database. Other than its “dirty” data and lack of credentialed authority, its biggest drawback is it is just a list, which does not allow comparisons like a database does. There are also many entries that seem sketchy to me, like one instance in which “law enforcement” was a Wal-Mart security guard, or many in which the name of the person killed is unlisted. Still, there is enough information present to follow up, to verify and fill in facts, so I made it into a spreadsheet to which I am filling in the missing parts: http://tinyurl.com/cz3rafa.
There are a couple of “gun death” databases that I find very interesting, both from crowdsourcing and straight journalism points of view. The first is Mother Jones magazine’s “Guide to Mass Shootings in America” online database, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map. I found the publicly accessible spreadsheet on Google Docs interesting: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AswaDV9q95oZdG5fVGJTS25GQXhSTDFpZXE0RHhUdkE#gid=0. I also found Slate’s “How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?” database appealing, although it doesn’t allow me to drill down as far as I’d like, for example, just a few words about circumstances would be handy for me because I do note they included some deaths that were a result of police interaction. www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_
american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html. However, I do find the Twitter feed submissions @GunDeaths an intriguing means of crowdsourcing.
In researching the information I’m looking for and how other journalists incorporated data—good ole “just the facts, ma’am” information—I found more internet sources than I could enumerate, but here are some good ones.
Los Angeles Times Data Desk: http://datadesk.latimes.com/
Witchita Eagle: http://www.kansas.com/news/databases/#navlink=navdrop.
Center for Investigative Reporting: http://cironline.org
Open secrets: www.opensecrets.org/
Center for Public Integrity: www.publicintegrity.org/
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (particularly tax haven investigations): www.icij.org.
Investigative Reporters & Editors through the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting has treasure trove of databases: http://ire.org/nicar.
Documenting innocent victims of police violence: http://www.innocentdown.org.
But, oddly, the piece that really started me down this road, the “Deadly Force” series by the Las Vegas Review-Journal (formerly at www.lvrj.com/deadlyforce), is no longer online, neither the stories nor the database. I was able to find an e-book of the series at Amazon.com, and there are a couple of pdf versions floating around on the internet, but the database seems to have been killed. Update: The series, which disappeared for several months, appears to have returned. This database is especially handy, and any national model could be based upon it.
The more you know
Weirdly, the occasional person asks what can be learned by knowing about deaths that happen when people interact with law enforcement, and they assume some sort of antipathy on my part, as though the pursuit of facts requires bias.
I don’t feel this way at all. I can think of many ways this information could be used by law enforcement to enhance their interactions with individuals that result in fewer people dying. I mean, most of us can agree that it’s not good for police officers to have to kill people, even when it’s entirely justified, can’t we?
One question that comes to mind is, how does one agency learn from the best policy practices of another if this information is not collected in a way that makes comparisons easy and accurate? Simply put, one agency should know which other to talk to if it decides its own policies are flawed. How does any agency know whether its own use of deadly force is greater or less than any other if there is no way to compare? Are there predictable situations that could keep officers out of harm’s way that could be learned from incident comparisons? And why do different jurisdictions whose officers train at the same police academy have different outcomes to similar situations?
Obviously, law enforcement has a vested interest in figuring out best practices with dealing with deadly force incidents. The National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., made a formal request of the Department of Justice to more completely collect data on the use of deadly force by police: http://tacreports.org/storage/documents/2013-justifiable-homicides.pdf
And add to this concept a whole new class of deaths: Modern police forces have new technology—like Tasers and beanbag guns—that are designed to avoid lethal use of force. How often do people die when the officer has made a conscious and conscientious decision that the situation does not call for use of deadly force?
I have no difficulty imagining a hundred story ideas: How about a story set in the city where an individual is most likely to die from police bullets (or maybe Taser or vehicle or maybe nightstick)? I’d like to make comparisons to see if some ages or groups are more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement. I’d guess we’d find that a very high percentage are considered justified–but then, with this database, we’d be able to see anomalies, like cities with a higher than average level of justified killings and a higher than average number of killings per capita. Where might that lead? A story about the most average person to be killed by police would be insightful. Who was he/she? It’s easy to visualize a portrait: A black male in his 20s. But is it accurate?
And in the end, when the database exists, I hope to get my wish that journalists would add context to every story that includes someone who died because they interacted with police.
I began with a simple three-year, three-step plan: 2013, collection; 2014, compilation; and 2015, publication.
- Step 1: Request information of every agency necessary to create a comprehensive database. Simultaneously, do regional internet research to compare/contrast the information provided government agencies.
- Step 2: Compile the data into an internet-based searchable database.
- Step 3: Analyze the data and publish periodic free-with-attribution stories for a year.
Add to that a Step 4 and Step 5: Figure out how to sustain the project after this first three-year phase is complete, and lobby Congress to require the Department of Justice to keep this information.
Transparency and the Freedom of Information Act
The first thing I had to figure out was exactly what information would be useful. The second thing I had to figure out was what information I could ask for that wouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. My instinct was to use the Freedom of Information Act—a law that requires government agencies to provide public information to the public—to get the data I wanted.
There are nine exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act, but different offices phrase the exceptions differently. Here’s a short version gleaned from the Security & Exchange Commission and other sources:
1. National defense or foreign policy information properly classified pursuant an Executive Order.
2. Documents “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.”
3. Documents “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute” other than FOIA, but only if the other statute’s disclosure prohibition is absolute.
4. Documents which would reveal “[t]rade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”
5. Documents which are “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandum or letters” which would be privileged in civil litigation.
6. Documents which are “personnel and medical and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
7. Documents which are “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” but only if one or more of six specified types of harm would result.
a. could reasonably be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings,
b. would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication,
c. could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,
d. could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source,
e. would disclose techniques, procedures, or guidelines for investigations or prosecutions, or
f. could reasonably be expected to endanger an individual’s life or physical safety;
8. Documents which are related to specified reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of agencies which regulate financial institutions.
9. Documents which would reveal oil well data.
And by the way, the Freedom of Information Act is a federal law that only constrains federal agencies. My experience has shown, however, other jurisdictions will honor a FOIA request if that agency feels inclined to be helpful. If agency personnel don’t want to be helpful, they’ll ignore the request and require it be made under state statutes. For example, in Nevada, it’s NRS Chapter 239, www.leg.state.nv.us/nrs/nrs-239.html.
This is a long way of saying that the Freedom of Information Act is pretty toothless, and it would behoove individuals not to ask for information that could be loosely interpreted as falling under one of these exceptions because the agency will turn down the entire request.
Here’s the list of 15 data fields I decided would be most useful and not fall into the FOIA exception list: Subject’s name, age, gender, race, date of death, location of death (address, city, state, zip code), agency responsible for death, cause of death, brief description of the circumstances, and the official disposition of death (justified or other).
Another piece of information that I think would be handy would be the name of the officer or officers involved, but that would have fallen directly under the “personnel” exception, which would get the whole request denied. Still, there are officers who have lost their jobs under a shadow of police brutality, and since this information is kept nowhere publicly, it seems possible they can forget to mention it on future job applications in other areas of the country.
From there, it’s just a question of figuring out from whom to request this information. The logical place to start is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the single largest collection of crime data in the United States. Participation is voluntary, but some 17,000 jurisdictions report finely detailed information on all kinds of crime.
The UCR is also the most sensible place to assemble information about incidents of fatal interactions with police in the United States. All it would take is a line from Congress on the appropriations bill that funds the report. This is also the national clearinghouse for information about law enforcement officers killed or assaulted in the line of duty.
The first step seemed simple enough. Just FOIA—journalists use “FOIA” as a verb that means, “Formally request public information from a government agency”—the mailing list of all the agencies that contribute the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and then FOIA the agencies. I know a mailing list exists; it has to. Here’s the guts of the request I sent:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Date range of request: January 1, 2011-December 31, 2011
Description of request: I would like a searchable database of all agencies that participated/reported in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report for 2011. I would like it to include the name of the agency, contact information including contact personnel with title, telephone number, mailing address, and email. I would like to receive the database on a CD or DVD at this address: D. Brian Burghart, c/o Reno News & Review, 708 N. Center St., Reno, NV 89501.
Please search the FBI’s indices to the Central Records System for the information responsive to this request related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report.
I am willing to pay up to $100 for the processing of this request. Please inform me if the estimated fees will exceed this limit before processing my request. I am seeking information for personal use and not for commercial use. Please note that I’ve cc’d several parties/email addresses in this request, but only one copy of the database is necessary.
Thank you for your help,
D. Brian Burghart
Editor/Publisher, Reno News & Review
Here’s the response:
This is in response to your Freedom of Information Act request regarding a “searchable database of all agencies that participated/reported in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report for 2011.”
The FOIA does not require federal agencies to answer inquiries, create records, conduct research, or draw conclusion concerning queried data. Rather the FOIA requires agencies to provide access to reasonably described, nonexempt records. The questions posed in the referenced letter are not FOIA requests because they do not comply with the FOIA and its regulations.
I’ve uploaded an image of the letter and its attachment with the idea that the agency’s lack of assistive direction will be instructive to others who file a FOIA request. See them here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-l9Ys3cd80faHhjUE9Gd016VUk/edit?usp=sharing and
I called David P. Sobonya, the FBI’s public information officer/legal admin. specialist, and he suggested I simply call the contact person for the Uniform Crime Report, Stephen G. Fischer Jr., and ask for the information. I called, and the secretary refused to either connect me to him or to leave a voicemail. “He only responds to email,” she said in so many words. I sent an email to which he responded:
Mr. Burghart – I am not authorized to receive/process FOIA requests. For information on how to do so, please see the link below:
So, I sent another FOIA to the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, the place I sent the first one. Here’s the guts of it:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Date range of request: January 1, 2012-December 31, 2012
Description of request: I would like to request copies of any records, electronic or hard copy, that include the contact information for local, county, state and federal agencies that participated/reported in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report for 2012. I am specifically requesting information that includes the name of the agency, telephone number, mailing address, and email. It is acceptable if this is made available in electronic or paper format. I would like to receive the records at this address: D. Brian Burghart, c/o Reno News & Review, 708 N. Center St., Reno, NV 89501.
Please search the FBI’s indices to the Central Records System for the information responsive to this request related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report.
I am willing to pay up to $100 for the processing of this request. Please inform me if the estimated fees will exceed this limit before processing my request. I am seeking information for personal use and not for commercial use. Please note that I’ve cc’d several parties/email addresses in this request, but only one copy of the list is necessary.
One thing I suspected through the first runaround was that my request was too specific. Some piece of my request must not have been part of the mailing list so the agency could make the claim that I was asking for something to be created.
Frankly, it’s a game. It’s a game that our “transparent” government plays with legitimate news reporters on a daily basis. The strategy is to put things off because most editors—not reporters—will lose patience long before a request is satisfied and move the reporter onto something else. Forget the idea that a small newspaper or private citizen in this day and age would sue for information that is plainly both public information and of public interest—few can afford to take on the federal government.
My first request was sent with the idea that more specific information would save taxpayers time and money. My second is much broader and will require much more work on the part of government researchers, but it is more likely to get a response. But there’s the rub: The government can charge for the time required to answer the second request, possibly tens of thousands of dollars, which I can’t afford. Needless to say, I’m still not counting on receiving the information I requested.
I sent the second Freedom of Information Act request on March 14. I’m still waiting for a response. It’s now almost five months since I first asked for information I know the FBI has to which every American is legally entitled.
However, if my efforts with the FBI ultimately fail, there are other places to query for public information, like the local jurisdictions including law enforcement or coroner offices. There is also an agency called the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies. In the meantime, though, I’m assembling the contact information all 72 law enforcement offices in Nevada because I have to start somewhere.
Still, with all the delays caused by the FBI’s stonewalling, I was forced to modify my strategy. So I decided I would collect information by whatever means at my disposal to make the most comprehensive database within my power. That meant working on four parallel projects: Continue FOIA efforts, scrape what information currently exists in databases on the web, collect new information through daily media accounts, and create a crowdsourcing system.
Guesses and statistics
Thirteen thousand deaths in 13 years seems like a lot, and I’ll be honest, my original estimate is barely an educated guess. I arrived at it based on the numbers that came out of the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s series, “Deadly Force.” By some rankings, Las Vegas is the 30th largest city in the United States. I simply assumed that Las Vegas’ average of seven deaths per year was the average for the top 60 cities in the United States and that police were more likely to use deadly force in the 60 biggest cities than in smaller towns where police are more likely to know the people they interact with. It’s conjecture. To take the guesswork a step further, I assumed that the top 60 cities’ body counts would be about 40 percent of the United States total. There are some 19,000 cities in the United States, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. To put a number to all this speculation, I figured there are about a thousand deaths that resulted from interaction with law enforcement in the United States every year. That would be two or three deaths a day.
But, as I mentioned above, as part of the modified plan, I started creating automated methods by which I could get a constant stream of reported deaths. One of the Google Alerts that I get on a daily basis is the search string “police shot killed,” and instead of seeing two or three deaths related to law enforcement a day, it appears there are closer to five or six reported deaths a day. That could be close to 2,000 deaths a year, but I don’t want to speculate, I want real data, which is the whole purpose of this project.
What’s my goal? My ultimate goal is to create a database so large and so comprehensive that members of the public and Congress will be able to see the benefit to systematically and accurately collecting this information through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. In the end, when I drive by a scene of police use of deadly force, I want to be able to answer that one simple question: How often does that happen?