Only once in my life have I ever been stopped by the police. I was walking home from a bar late at night. The encounter was brief, but still a bit unsettling. Most encounters with police are not happy ones. We call them when we are in trouble, never when we are in a happy mood.
Imagine having a gun pointed at you and the holder of the weapon is an officer that is even scarier than the usual encounter. Sadly in the U.S. and Canada people do die at the hands of police officers. The most famous in my mind is Robert Dziekansky a polish immigrant with no ability to communicate in English trying to find his mom in Vancouver’s international airport back in 2007. He was tasered by police and died. The incident sparked a huge backlash against the RCMP and the four men involved. One is now facing 30 months in jail and no doubt the loss of his job for lying to the inquiry that followed the incident.
Save for the few videos that capture events like the one mentioned above few stats are really kept, especially in the United States where hundreds of people have been killed by police. One man hoping to change that is D. Brian Burghart the man behind fatalencounters.org he joins us to do a Candid Conversation about his work.
D. B Burghart: Hi, thanks for having me.
Cliff T.: I was listening to a podcast called Day 6, from CBC radio and when I heard you speak I was immediately thinking I want to speak with this guy. I find it absurd to think that there are no real statistics on deaths linked to police encounters, when you started to take a look did you have the same feeling?
D. B Burghart: I was naïve when I started. Even when I was looking at the Department of Justice's data, I thought I must be doing something wrong. I felt it was beyond absurd. It was offensive. Our government tracks anything it considers important, bearing any expense. The fact that it was not tracking the people its employees killed suggested pretty strongly that those deaths didn't matter.
Cliff T.: You also mentioned in the interview with Brent, that you had an encounter of sorts, you passed by a scene where a shooting had culminated in a death, what was that like for you when you realized someone was killed by a police officer?
D. B Burghart: It wasn't shocking or surprising, particularly when I read about the guy afterward. The local media just repeated the police narrative that he was a dangerous criminal, a meth addict. I did a little research afterward, and found out he was more three dimensional than that. He didn't have a gun. He was a father, a leader in his church, the lead singer for a very popular Christian rock band. Jace Herndon was an addict, but he was also a human being who'd committed no capital crime.
Cliff T.: I think that we can agree that in most cases police civilian contact is largely routine, even when arrests are made the bulk of these are with no incident. That said it is the incidents that are that the most shocking if they are captured on film, problem is most are not and even the media reporting in some cases is scant. Do you have any real difficulties getting the data even in the current context of social media?
D. B Burghart: Yes, getting public records from law enforcement agencies can be extremely time-consuming and expensive. Sometime agencies can be very helpful and just supply the records. Other times, they refuse to follow the law and dare you to sue them for it. As far as social media, it's not really a factor for us. We do most of our research using the internet, particularly news organizations, then blogs and activists, then probably court documents.
Cliff T.: Another point that caught my ear was that many if not most of those who die at the hands of police are mentally ill, and POOR! That almost suggests that it is easier for police to get away with, well murder or are we barking up the wrong tree with this assumption after all most police do not go on duty looking to kill anyone?
D. B Burghart: Police don't go on duty looking to kill someone. The numbers are huge, more than three people a day killed with guns and cars, but it's not a 1-in-a-million interactions occurrence. That said, check out the second map on the Our Visualizations page on FatalEncounters.org. The vast, vast majority of these killings happen in the most poverty-stricken areas of the country. It makes sense, though. Police patrol areas where they're most likely to find street-level crime--that whole "broken-window policing" concept. Even the mental illness aspect makes sense, since the mentally ill often act in unpredictable ways, and that's what scares cops and makes them defensive and aggressive. In those volatile situations, bad things happen.
Cliff T.: The purpose of fatalencounters.org is to document incidents where someone dies at the hands of the police. Is the site contained to U.S. stats or are you looking at international data as well?
D. B Burghart: We're focusing on U.S. data right now. A university professor in Canada asked me to set up a spreadsheet for her, but I don't know if she ever used it for anything. In any case, it only took me a couple hours because you have groups up in Canada who are keeping track. Does your government keep accurate statistics? Also, we've started a Spanish-language project, EncuentrosMortales.org that focuses on people killed on the southern U.S. border. We've already got some records of people killed by U.S. law enforcement who died on the Mexican side of the border.
Cliff T.: That is a great question I do believe the Canadian government does However I have to say I Have not actually looked into that myself, but, as a starting point Google does serve up some links that may be of interest to you and also to readers of the blog. That said. Are you noticing any trends and if so what are they?
D. B Burghart: I think we were the first ones to spot the relationship between mental illness and being killed by police. It's pretty common knowledge now. Also since there was no data about race, people had suspicions but couldn't prove the racial disparity. The race data is still pretty bad. About a third of the time, the media doesn't report it, but this is improving, particularly in the area of officer-involved homicides.
Cliff T.: I would assume that most deaths are gun related, which other ways do people end up dead while in custody?
D. B Burghart: I might be misunderstanding your question, but police kill people with vehicles, Tasers--all manner of less-lethal methods--they beat people to death, asphyxiate them … there's a pretty long list. Also, these stressful situation also tend to cause things like heart attacks and strokes. To be clear, though, most of these deaths don't happen when people are in custody, but when an officer is trying to make an arrest. Also, we don't track deaths after someone is booked into jail. Some 5,000 people die each year in local jails and state prisons; if we include some but not all, it inflates our numbers while making them less accurate. If we were to only track the incarcerated deaths that make the news, it makes it look like the number of incarcerated people who die is much smaller than it actually is.
Cliff T.: No you got the last question bang on. Brian I have to ask, why, why do this kind of work. What do you want to see come out of this research?
D. B Burghart: I want people and law enforcement agencies to have as much information as possible so they can track trends across regions and time. This will enable agencies and governments to change policies, training and protocol to get the best outcomes for everyone and have fewer police killed and have fewer of the policed killed.
Cliff T.: How will you know if you have been successful or better that I put it this way, what is the ultimate goal of the project and how will you know you have achieved it.
D. B Burghart: Well, we've already informed the national dialog so we've achieved a measure of success. We proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the numbers our government was broadcasting were wildly inaccurate. I'll know the first part of our job is finished when we consider all 50 states and D.C. complete. We've calculated that day will come in August 2017.
Cliff T.: In the interview on Day 6 you said that it takes about a day to work on the project. You probably are getting some help on this. Is there a volunteer group helping you build the database and who are they?
D. B Burghart: I actually put in about 25-30 hours a week on the project. Most of our helpers are paid for their research--there are about 10 really solid researchers. There are only four volunteers, including me, who've put in more than a couple of hours without payment.
Cliff T.: Brian if anyone wants to participate what can they do to help the Fatal Encounters project?
D. B Burghart: A certain percentage of our work still comes from crowdsourcing--people add records through our form, and it all gets verified before it gets published into the database. The main way people can help is with donations, as it all goes to the researchers.
Cliff T.: Besides media attention has there been any response by policing agencies to what you are doing, have they come on board or are they not as willing to open up to you about the stats?
D. B Burghart: Hard to say. I did see a story where an FBI representative said they look at sites like ours to improve their own data-collection methods. We have quite a few police officers who've sent data or even donations. The individual men and women seem to get that we're neutral, but getting an agency "culture" to change is different. It's usually the lawyers and the bureaucrats who block our access to records.
Cliff T.: Before we close I want to ask so far what is the biggest impact you feel you have had since developing the Fatal Encounters site?
D. B Burghart: There are three. First, when I started this project, nobody knew how many people were killed by police in the United States. Now they have a pretty good idea, about 1,200 a year. We're up to about 8,000 records, with an expected endpoint of about 19,000. Second, nobody knew the government wasn't counting and analyzing this data. Now, it's pretty common knowledge and people are demanding change. The third is the protocol. Our method of collecting the data was really unsophisticated, but it has now been applied to many different issues. For example, https://puppycidedb.com is using our protocol to document incidents of pets and animals killed by police, and http://data4justice.org/ is tracking people arrested for child pornography.
Cliff T.: I think it is an absolute and important job that needs to be done. I bet it can be gruesome to document these things. That said it is important to keep going, thanks for sharing some time and insight with the Candid Conversations readership much appreciated.
D. B Burghart: I always say it's the most depressing hobby ever conceived. Thanks for having me.
D. Brian Burghart, created the fatalencounters.org a page, a database that documents thousands of deaths of people, at the hands of the police.
A special note to readers of this post: As mentioned most if not the vast majority of police never go on patrol looking to kill anyone during the tour of duty. Sadly many do die at the hands of police most are justifiable shootings. The concern is the few that are suspect.
Edmund Burke stated the following. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As bloggers, reporters and database managers we are all expected to operate at a level where open honesty is the first and most important goal, even when the truth bears ugly facts. In this case the fact is that some police officers have behaved badly and people have died while in they’re care and custody. To stop or keep this fact from seeing light is an injustice to the victims and to those officers who perform they’re jobs at the highest level of professionalism.