In the wake of last year's events in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, many journalists were surprised to learn that the federal government doesn't keep a reliable record of how many people are killed by police each year. This week, the Washington Post and the Guardian US both published databases of their own, attempting to account for every incident in the US since the beginning of 2015. Just days after their publication, senators Cory Booker and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation that would require the federal government to keep a similar database. Brooke speaks to the Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy and the Guardian US's Jon Swaine about their efforts to fill the vacuum left by the government.
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BROOKE: On Tuesday, Senators Barbara Boxer and Cory Booker introduced a bill called The Police Reporting of Information Data and Evidence - or PRIDE Act, that would require states to report to the Justice Department every death or major injury caused by police. To date, the federal government’s mandate to gather that information has fizzled. As FBI Chief James Comey concedes.
JAMES COMEY: It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country. Last week, last year, the last decade. It’s ridiculous.
BROOKE: Journalists to the rescue! Seriously, new data gathered by the Guardian US and the Washington Post reveals just how much we haven’t been counting. The Post’s report, released last weekend, determined that 385 people died from police gunshots in the first five months of 2015. By their tally, police have been responsible for 1 out of every 13 gun deaths in the US this year.
Meanwhile, the Guardian’s study includes not only shootings, but deaths by other means, such as tasers. Its database, which it calls “The Counted,” puts the total at 470 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Kimberly Kindy is a national investigative reporter at the Washington Post.
KINDY: Thanks a lot for having me.
BROOKE: And Jon Swaine is a senior reporter `for the Guardian US. Hi, John.
BROOKE: Let's start by having you guys explain how this project came about at your respective institutions. Kimberly, you want to start?
KINDY: Sure. Last year I was covering Ferguson along with a lot of other reporters, and one of the first things that came to mind was wow, how often does this happen? How often does an officer fatally shoot and kill somebody? Well, the FBI is supposed to be keeping track of that but there is no mandated reporting. It's voluntary. So, about 3% of local police departments actually report their fatal encounters to the FBI. it's grossly undercounted in their database. We decided to do our own database: start tracking the information with respect to how those encounters begin, whether it's a traffic stop, whether it's a police officer going on a *911 call because someone is suicidal. We get some real information and maybe provide some answers as to why things are going sideways so often.
SWAINE: The FBI figures have this air of authority, air of officialdom, while being practically useless. There's no information on which departments have taken part, whether some departments from last year have this year not taken part. And so, when you get totals year to year, the supposed trends that come out could be completely meaningless, could be wrong. And we, too, thought that you know if no one's going to do this, we should do it, too. There are so many interesting stories in these people's lives, and in these people's deaths. And sometimes they slip between the cracks, sometimes if people die in areas that aren't well served by media, if we return to these stories, if we find these stories that kind of passed us by, sometimes there are inconsistencies in the police account of what happened, and this thing's really worthy of investigation so we thought this would be a repository for our reporting as well as a database.
BROOKE: I"m a little confused: you both said that the FBI data is voluntarily supplied by local police departments, but I understood that the death in custody reporting act mandated that states receiving federal criminal justice assistant report all the deaths that occur in law enforcement custody.
SWAINE: As far as we can tell, people just aren't doing it. People are not following the law, and you know, it's incredibly difficult I'm sure to coordinate responses to different departments in different cities, counties, states, who are just not doing this, this has just fallen by the wayside.
BROOKE: Each of you used different methodology. Kimberly, why did you limit yourself to shooting deaths and then, I'll just pass it on to John, why did you include tasers and being run over by cars and other things?
KINDY: We decided to look at fatal shootings because when somebody dies at the hands of police officers, that's the majority of them. And we wanted to make sure that we analyzed something that was as best as possible the complete data set. We thought that we would be able to do some meaningful analysis, because it is the bulk of cases and the details of those incidents, it's something that we were able to, you know, track. If you separate out some of the things that the Guardian put in, and you just looked at their fatal shootings, we had numbers that were fairly comparable.
SWAINE: We, too, considered the fact that it was more manageable to limit this just to shootings, however, we just thought we could not do this when Freddie Gray, the case in Baltimore that set so much controversy, so many protests and riots, he would not be covered by a database that limited itself just to shooting.
BROOKE: Freddie Gray was killed basically being in the back of a police wagon, bound and just thrown around and it killed him.
SWAINE: That's right, and Eric Garner, who died following a physical struggle with officers who used a chokehold on him, these cases were so significant to people, they created so many questions and so much discussion about this issue that we thought our database has to cover these cases.
KINDY: I think what you're getting at really illustrates how difficult and complicated it is to create a database that's meaningful that will lead us to ultimately what we want, which is a better understand of why these incidents are happening and if they are preventable. The truth is that the Guardian and the Washington Post shouldn't be the ones building this database. We're trying to fill a vacuum and there should be no vacuum to fill.
BROOKE: For both of you, this is going to be an ongoing project, at least for a while, no?
SWAINE: Absolutely. One thing we're determined to do if we can is to keep track of investigations. So many times, someone is killed, it is announced that such and such department is investigating and then nothing is ever heard of again. In this past year, one of the main issues that has come to the fore was, when is a shooting justified, when is a tasting justified. And to be able to answer that in a kind of broad way and to see what's going on, we thought someone has to keep track of that.
KINDY: So far most of these shootings are still under investigation. Typically when this happened it was usually months, sometimes years before an officer was either charged or they publicly determined that it was legally justified. But we're definitely starting to see some change in that. Although most of these cases have either been deemed legally justified or they're pending. So far there are three officers that have been charged with the fatal shootings this year, in all three cases, I should point out, there was video that captured some or all of the incidents. They seem to be moving faster and doing it more often, but it's still only 3 out of about 400.
BROOKE: So we're talking about fewer than 1%. What of the findings you came up with surprised you the most?
KINDY: 20% of our unarmed people, they were running away when they were shot and killed.
BROOKE: That surprised me too. 20%, but as I understand it, police are authorized to use deadly force only when their lives or the lives of others are in danger. So how are these not prosecuted?
KINDY: When you start reading these sort of case by case by case what they generally say is that, well I ran after him, and then when I got on top of him, he reached into his pants pockets and I thought he was going for a gun and it turns out to be a cell phone not a gun. IF they can convince a jury that they truly were afraid that the person was armed even if they weren't, they typically get off.
SWAINE: When it's the word of an officer involved...
KINDY: The word of an officer against the word of somebody who's dead and is no longer around to tell their story.
SWAINE: Or a potentially criminally implicated friend or someone like that. And as Kimberly said, the video that is emerging from people with cell phones, people who are just recording as they pass by because they've been watching similar videos, this is changing things. And i think it's really challenging the authority of the word of police.
BROOKE: What about the racial aspect of this debate? Probably the number that's most often quoted is that among the unarmed people, who were shot by officers, they were disproportionately of color.
SWAINE: 30% of black people who were killed by police in our database turned out to be unarmed, that was twice as big a proportion of those white people who were killed by police. That is stark - and we need to look into why. You know maybe there are some police departments where institutional bias exists, and only with this sort of data can we point to them.
BROOKE: What do you think of the argument made in certain political circles and in certain precincts of the media, that all this focus on what seems to be excessive violence by police, is actually increasing the danger to police?
KINDY: I talked to over a dozen police chiefs about this. They said that if the training was different, and if these encounters were handled differently, that it would not only reduce the deaths of suspects or victims, it would also reduce the risks for officers. It's not safe for them either when they chase down somebody with a gun and it's unnecessary. It's not safe for them to go and get close to a mentally ill person with a knife. So we're really talking about the kind of analysis that can make things safer for them.
BROOKE: you know one thing we've talked about really since Trayvon Martin in Florida but certainly since Michael Brown in Ferguson, is when talking to people about the community, they say yeah, the media come in, maybe there's some reporting, but nothing ever changes. And I wonder, what you think the implications for this data may be?
SWAINE: Attorney general Eric Holder said that this situation was unacceptable and something needed to be done. The director of the FBI has said similar. There Are petitions from the American Civil Liberties Union from other campaign groups to make this reporting mandatory.
KINDY: I think the great thing is that they can't just throw their hands up anymore and say "well, we're doing the best we can". Now lawmakers can point to something and say wait a minute, the Guardian can do this, wait a minute, the Post can do this. Why can't you do this?
BROOKE: Thank you both very much.
KINDY: Thanks a lot for having us.
BROOKE: Kimberly Kindy is a national investigative reporter at the Washington Post. And Jon Swaine is a senior reporter for the Guardian US.