USA

Fatal Encounters: Tracking every officer-involved killing in the U.S.

For nearly two months, protesters around the world filled city streets, marched on government buildings and demanded justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and Andres Guardado — all who died during encounters with law enforcement.

But for every high-profile police-related killing, there have been countless others where the names and faces of the victims never made national headlines. Much of what we do know about these deaths comes from the work of one man.

D. Brian Burghart, a former reporter and editor, has dedicated eight years to doing what federal agencies have not done: meticulously track every known law enforcement officer-involved killing in the United States. The result is Fatal Encounters, a national database that shines a light into the darkest corners of policing in America.

D. Brian Burghart.Courtesy D. Brian Burghart

As of July 10, Fatal Encounters lists more than 28,400 deaths dating to Jan. 1, 2000. The entries include both headline-making cases and thousands of lesser-known deaths.

Burghart uses what’s known as open-source information gleaned from news reports and public records to chronicle each reported killing. Users can search by name, age, race, gender, date, city and more to find people who have died during interactions with police.

On his website, Burghart modestly calls Fatal Encounters a “step towards creating an impartial, comprehensive and searchable national database.” Observers have been far more laudatory. A 2019 critical review of his work by the Journal of Open Health Data called it the “largest collection of PRDs [Police Related Deaths] in the United States and remains as the most likely source for historical trend comparisons and police-department level analyses of the causes of PRDs.” Other databases do exist, including The Counted by The Guardian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post Fatal Force project, but neither go as far back as 2000.

In the years since Burghart started the project, national news organizations have come to see the import of this sort of large database, both as a means of educating the public and encouraging transparency between law enforcement and civilians.

For Burghart it began with one death. “It started when the government told me, ‘No,’” he said. “I’m a journalist. You don’t tell me ‘No.’”

In 2012, Burghart drove by a scene that was “plainly chaos.” Everything about what he saw - the heavy police presence and flashing lights — instinctively told Burghart, an investigative journalist by training, that someone had a fatal encounter with law enforcement.

Burghart went home, turned on his police scanner and waited. Police officers had pulled over, then shot and killed a man named Jace Herndon, who was driving what turned out to be a stolen car.

Burghart scanned local news reports. He wanted to know how many other people in his area had died during interactions with police. But that information was missing from every story.

That bothered him. A few months later, an 18-year-old college student, Gil Collar, was killed by University of South Alabama campus police. Again, Burghart wondered how often that happens.

“The earliest thing I found out was that nobody knew,” he said.

At the time Burghart was the editor and publisher of The Reno News & Review in Nevada, a free alternative weekly based in “the biggest little city in the world.” As he became more and more intrigued by the lack of information surrounding the deaths of Collar and Herndon, Burghart channeled his interest in data to begin the task of figuring out just how many people die each year during interactions with law enforcement.

He started with the official counts. “I always feel like the numbers are the truth,” he said.

His initial plan was to get the mailing addresses of every law enforcement agency in the country — he estimates there were about 16,000 at the time — that participated in the Department of Justice’s yearly Uniform Crime Report, the largest collection of crime data available in the U.S.

He then intended to crowdsource public records requests to each one of those agencies. But he knew not all agencies are required to participate; there is no national mandate to report local crime statistics to the federal government.

Burghart hit a roadblock with the FBI, which told him the agency did not maintain a running list of all law enforcement departments in the country that contribute to the Uniform Crime Report. Undeterred, he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for new information and was eventually able to submit some 2,500 additional requests to various agencies.

“I think I got through the entire states of Texas and Nevada,” he said, laughing at the memory. “I’ve got FOIAs still out from that time period.”

Some agencies did not respond to his queries while others asked for tens of thousands of dollars in payment for copies. Eventually he received data in the form of two CDs filled with spreadsheets saved as jpegs. But images aren’t searchable — every photo had to be manually combed, a painstaking process. As he described it nearly a decade later, he felt like "the FBI was messing with me.”

Burghart still bristles at how difficult it was to find accurate numbers for police-involved killings.

“It offended me on a couple of different levels,” he said. Rankling him most was the very peculiarity of his own singularity: “Why am I the guy figuring this out?”

About 4 years ago Burghart quit his day job to focus exclusively on Fatal Encounters. In that time he has been forced to reckon with the fact that because the federal government does not systemically track every police-involved killing in the U.S., Americans, lawmakers and even law enforcement departments don’t have a complete picture of what policing in this country truly looks like.

“Unquestionably it’s a failure,” Burghart said. “It enables people who don’t want to know.”

Over the years, as more people have been killed by law enforcement and video footage of these incidents continues to surface, Burghart’s decision to aggregate the information began to feel almost prescient. Sociologists and criminologists from all over the country now use data mined from Fatal Encounters to further their research.

Protesters clash with police in Chicago on May 30, 2020 during a protest against the death of George Floyd.Jim Vondruska / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

Last month Harvard researchers used his data in publishing a study that mapped fatal police violence encounters across U.S. cities from 2013 to 2017. They found that police were six-and-a-half times more likely to kill Blacks than whites in Chicago and its western suburbs.

“Brian’s dataset is incredible, enormous and a huge effort for one journalist to have undertaken,” said Brian Finch, a sociology and spatial sciences research professor at the University of Southern California.

Finch is one of several researchers who have combed through Burghart’s numbers to reveal patterns in deadly interactions with law enforcement.

In a 2018 USC study using Fatal Encounters, Finch found that “police homicides represent between 5 and 12 percent of all homicides in the country in any given year.” He also found that the New York Police Department held the lowest police-homicide rate compared to the city’s overall murder rate, while the Los Angeles and Houston police departments had among the highest police-homicide rates. Finch concluded that police-involved homicides have actually increased over time while violent crimes and murders have decreased.

Arriving at these conclusions would have been nearly impossible without Burghart’s work, Finch said.

“It’s unheard of to work as Brian does,” he said, adding that Burghart doesn’t rely on programs or algorithms. Instead, he inputs every field by hand.

Burghart is now working with a team of artificial intelligence experts to create new ways of processing information. He isn’t ready to release any details about the project, but said the work he has undertaken as a private citizen would be better completed at the federal level.

And yet the attention Fatal Encounters receives is episodic, according to Burghart.

“It goes away for a little while until something so excruciating happens again to ignite the flame,” he said.

A protester holds a sign with an image of George Floyd during protests on May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis.Christine T. Nguyen / Minnesota Public Radio via AP file

Recently, that flame was sparked by the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in May. His killing inspired both lawmakers and activists to revisit criminal justice reform efforts.

Burghart isn’t sure if the national outcry will last this time around, but he warns that a lack of transparency within law enforcement agencies could lead to continued unrest.

“The number of people killed by police is microscopically small” compared to the general population, he said. “But those deaths are so important to the families of the people who were killed because they symbolize systematic racism.”

A self-professed “numbers guy” with an appetite for adventure, Burghart was preparing to embark on a four-leg journey from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to Alabama when he spoke with NBC News.

The same curiosity that compels Burghart to travel is also what inspired him to undertake a mammoth enterprise like compiling two decade’s worth of data into a spreadsheet available to any journalist, researcher and interested individual.

Some cases never leave him. He still thinks about the death of Daniel Shaver, an Arizona man shot by police after crawling on the floor of a Mesa hotel and sobbing for his life, and Kelly Thomas, a California man who had been living on the street before a fatal encounter with the Fullerton police.

“Even when I'm done with this, it will be a part of me forever,” Burghart said.

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