by Paul Bowers
For reporters, one of the most frustrating parts about covering stories like the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner is the lack of context: There is no complete, nationwide database of fatal civilian encounters with law enforcement officers. Yet.
A couple of people are working to change that, and they could use your help. One is D. Brian Burghart, editor of the alt-weekly Reno News & Review, who has been crowd-sourcing just such a database on his nonprofit website FatalEncounters.org since 2012. Another is Deadspin's Kyle Wagner, who launched a Google spreadsheet in August and is seeking volunteers to scour Google's news archives by date for officer-involved shootings.
There are gaps to be filled in both databases if you've got the time and energy. For example, neither one includes a record of the Oct. 12, 2013, fatal shooting of 51-year-old James Islander Derryl Drayton after he reportedly threw a kitchen knife that cut an officer in the knee. Charleston County sheriff's deputies, who initially tried to subdue Drayton with Tasers before opening fire, were cleared of wrongdoing in the case.
Neither database includes a mention of the Aug. 19, 2013, shooting death of 22-year-old Travis Miller by Hanahan police. Officers pulled Miller's car over for a window tint violation, and Miller tried to run away after the officers began to question him. Police say he fired a handgun over his shoulder at them, prompting them to return fire, although there were some initial discrepancies between an official incident report and an account given to the media by the police chief.
The two databases are set up slightly differently. Deadspin's project includes columns for details such as number of shots fired, whether the decedent was armed, race of the decedent, and what sort of weapon was used. It also is being used to track non-lethal police-involved shootings.
FatalEncounters, on the other hand, is strictly tracking fatalities, and each entry includes a brief narrative of the police encounter. The site also features a database search function that lets you filter by state, county, and year, and it tracks the age, sex, and race of the deceased.
Both Wagner and Burghart have expressed their dismay that law enforcement agencies themselves aren't tracking data on officer-involved fatalities. Wagner writes that the omission constitutes "governmental malpractice on a national scale," and Burghart goes a step further in an essay he wrote recently:
The biggest thing I've taken away from this project is something I'll never be able to prove, but I'm convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government — not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force — wants you to know how many people it kills and why."
Don't have time to scour public records but still want to help the cause? FatalEncounters was recently granted nonprofit status with the IRS and is seeking donations to fund its operation. Donations are tax-deductible.