In the past few days of discussion over police-involved shootings, we have seen a lot of claims and counter-claims about numbers—who has been shot, their race, etc. However, based on recent articles I have read, I think we should be skeptical about claims to have an accurate count of police shooting deaths.
For instance, D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review, has been attempting a crowdsourced national database of deadly police violence. Online publication Gawker asked Mr. Burghart what he’s learned from compiling the data. The results are more than a bit disconcerting.
He notes, “It began simply enough. Commuting home from my work at Reno’s alt-weekly newspaper, the News & Review, on May 18, 2012, I drove past the aftermath of a police shooting—in this case, that of a man named Jace Herndon. It was a chaotic scene, and I couldn’t help but wonder how often it happened.
“I went home and grabbed my laptop and a glass of wine and tried to find out. I found nothing—a failure I simply chalked up to incompetent local media,” he writes.
He continues, “A few months later I read about the Dec. 6, 2012, killing of a naked and unarmed 18-year-old college student, Gil Collar, by University of South Alabama police. The killing had attracted national coverage—The New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN—but there was still no context being provided—no figures examining how many people are killed by police.”
This began his search to find out how many people have died during interactions with the police. He writes, “Try as I might, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn’t being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn’t have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know ‘best practices’ for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn’t.”
This is indeed a disconcerting finding, so of course he decided he would try to build a library of police killing, as he found the absence of such data “offensive.”
It is a continuing project, but he has come to some interesting conclusions. First, he says while he will “never be able to prove” it, he is convinced: “The lack of such a database is intentional.”
He concludes, “No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.”
He adds, “It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence.”
“What evidence?” he writes. “In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests.”
Mr. Burghart has a second conclusion as well – “bad journalism colludes with police to hide this information.”
He writes, “The primary reason for this is that police will cut off information to reporters who tell tales. And a reporter can’t work if he or she can’t talk to sources. It happened to me on almost every level as I advanced this year-long Fatal Encounters series through the News & Review. First they talk; then they stop, then they roadblock.”
We certainly see some of this at the local level. Look how easily the DA’s office is willing to cut off information from reporters who offer a critical viewpoint of their activities.
Mr. Burghart writes, “There are many other ways that bad or sloppy journalism undermines the ability of researchers to gather data on police shootings. Reporters make fundamental errors or typos; they accept police excuses for not releasing names of the dead or the shooters, or don’t publish the decedents’ names even if they’re released; they don’t publish police or coroner’s reports.”
He notes, “Sometimes they don’t show their work: This otherwise excellent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article claims there were 15 fatal shooting cases involving law enforcement agencies between January 2007 to September 30, 2011—but provides few names and dates for further research efforts.”
Mr. Burghart continues, “And that list doesn’t even get into fundamental errors in attitude toward police killing—for example, the tendency of large outlets and wire services to treat killings as local matters, and not worth tracking widely. Even though police brutality is a national crisis.”
And this gets to the point that was raised earlier: “Journalists also don’t generally report the race of the person killed. Why? It’s unethical to report it unless it’s germane to the story. But race is always germane when police kill somebody.”
Finally, we get to the race card that everyone seems to want to avoid. He writes, “This is the most most heinous thing I’ve learned in my two years compiling Fatal Encounters. You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men. You know who dies in the least population dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.”
He adds, “And if you want to get down to nut-cuttin’ time, across the board, it’s poor people who are killed by police. (And by the way, around 96 percent of people killed by police are men.)”
Finally Mr. Burghart concludes, “But maybe [the] most important thing I learned is that collecting this information is hard. I still firmly believe that having a large, searchable database will allow us not just better understanding of these incidents, but better training, policies and protocols for police, and consequently fewer dead people and police. But normal people don’t much care about numbers.”
Given this story, I think we should be far more skeptical about the information we have on police killings—I simply do not believe we have good data. The idea that there may be intentional and structural reasons for that poor data is all the more disconcerting.
If the data on police shootings is that poor, use of force complaints—which are not even disclosable public documents in most cases—are even worse.
—David M. Greenwald reporting