This Journalist Made a National Database of Fatal Police Shootings

Brian Burghart wants the nation to know how many civilians have been fatally shot by police. 

By Alain StephensAugust 14, 2015 4:00 pm| ,

It’s hard to go a day now without hearing about another police shooting a civilian in the news; some of them justified, others questionable.

Just this week, a man in Waco tried to steal $80 worth of brisket from H-E-B and was shot and killed by police. But race doesn’t appear to be a factor in this case as it has been in many high profile shooting incidents as of late. Hundreds gathered Wednesday night at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington to remember 19-year-old Christian Taylor. Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams has called the incident “an unfortunate accident.”

But whether an unfortunate accident or something more sinister, if you want to get an immediate sense of the scale of police-related homicides, good luck — there’s no database. A new law will take effect in Texas on Sept. 1, that requires police to notify the Texas Attorney General every time an officer shoots someone or gets shots, but that law won’t affect the other 49 states.

Fortunately someone has taken a big step towards providing a national database; journalist Brian Burghart is the editor and publisher of The Reno News & Review. He’s also the founder of FatalEncounters.org.

The mission of Fatal Encounters is to create an “impartial, comprehensive and searchable national database of people killed during interactions with law enforcement.”

The site is still in development but presents data on police killings in a variety of formats, including maps, graphs, spreadsheets and crowd-sourced videos. Burghart speaks the Standard to discuss how he started the Fatal Encounters project and what trends he’s seeing in the data so far.

On how Fatal Encounters gathers its information on police-involved homicides:

“We have three methods actually — the biggest one is we have paid researchers who scour the internet, both by state and across time, and they put the information into a form which is sent to a spreadsheet, and then I verify all the information that’s on it and upload it to the database. We also do public records requests — we’ve done more than 2,000 public records requests, primarily in Texas and Nevada.”

On how user-submitted data has helped the database grow:

“The [crowd-sourcing] part has gotten the most attention, it has kind of cooled down — I’m not sure exactly why. Say a year ago, during the stuff in Ferguson, we had lots of people putting in through crowd-sourcing, basically doing what our researchers are doing… but now it’s probably down to maybe five a week that come in that way.”

On what Burghart has learned about police-related homicides in Texas:

“We’re not finding anything particularly different about Texas than we’ve found in other places… I’m seeing in Texas what I see across the country — most of officer-involved deaths are justifiable, but there’s always a few that seem to have questions, you know? Things that don’t seem quite right and you’re not quite understanding why more didn’t happen… why wasn’t the officer charged or dismissed?”