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Every weekend, journalism students from the University of Nevada at Reno meet in Brian Burghart’s dining room to crunch data drawn from police reports from around the country. He is the founder of Fatal Encounters, and he’s using old-school journalism to figure out how many people are killed by police each year in the United States. He has decided to take on this challenge because no government agency comprehensively tracks the number of people who die in police custody. Currently, it’s up to journalists like Burghart and other activists to fill in the missing pieces on deadly police shootings.
“The federal government tracks anything that matters,” says Burghart. “The number of shoes sold, rainfall in Death Valley. The fact that they weren’t collecting this information suggests that it just didn’t matter.”
“We need this data not only to know what the police are doing today and this year, but what did they do last year? And what did they do the year before? And what are the trends? Are they shooting more people? Are they disproportionately African-American? Are those rates growing?”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2000 Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which required states, not individual police departments, to report any person who dies while in police custody. But the law, which expired in 2006, had no teeth, and 16 states and the District of Columbia opted not to fully participate.
“Our knowledge on force — on officer-involved shootings, things like that — is patchy,” says Jack Glaser, an associate dean at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Policy. He has published a book detailing the consequences of racial profiling and says that getting any data on arrest-related homicides is “dependent on departments’ collecting the data, sharing the data, and they don’t do that reliably.”
“I mean, in a perfect world, police departments would be reporting this and would be very transparent about it. I don’t have faith that will happen.”
Founder, Mapping Police Violence
The Bureau of Judicial Statistics, an arm of the Department of Justice, says it has been able to identify only about half of all arrest-related police homicides. The bureau estimates that the true number of people killed by police annually may be as high 928, but it does not have a definitive total. Fatal Encounters, which uses police reports, media accounts and other research methods, identified 1,192 lives lost at the hands of police in 2014 — 28 percent more than official estimates.
“I mean, in a perfect world, police departments would be reporting this and would be very transparent about it. I don’t have faith that will happen,” says Sam Sinyangwe, a 25-year-old Stanford University graduate who created the website Mapping Police Violence. He has analyzed the data from Fatal Encounters’ website and other activist sites like Killed by Police. Drawing from his background in statistical analysis, he has broken down their data by race, gender, age and location and has reached some eye-opening conclusions.
“We’ve learned that what the protesters are saying is absolutely correct and is validated by the data,” he says. “Black folks are three times more likely to be killed by police than white folks in this country. We also know that black folks are more likely to be killed if they’re unarmed, compared to white folks. In fact, more black people who are unarmed were killed by police than white people who are unarmed, despite the fact that white people are five times greater in terms of population in this country.”
His analysis has revealed other disturbing trends. For example, he says, your odds of being killed by police depend on where you live. A black person in Florida, his analysis shows, is two and a half times as likely to be killed by police as in Georgia. An African-American in St. Louis is five times as likely to be killed by police as a black person in New York City, and a black person is 10 times as likely to be killed by police in Oklahoma as in Virginia.
A new Death in Custody Reporting Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. But many experts, including Edwards, say it’s not enough. “The reason it’s insufficient is that it’s still voluntary. So you’re relying on the goodwill of police departments to be as transparent and accountable as possible, which history has shown doesn’t seem to come naturally,” he says.
For now, Burghart plans to continue having his interns catalog the boxes of police reports stacked on his dining room table. “Most people think human life matters more than just about anything you could be concerned with,” he says. “And for our government not to care enough to track who it’s killing and why it’s killing them is incomprehensible.”