By Sandy K. Johnson
Sooner or later, there will be a controversial police shooting of a civilian in your community or state.
In fact, there are almost 1,000 each year in the U.S. – a statistic that’s only known because of a groundbreaking database that The Washington Post built and maintains as a resource for the public and the media.
“Fatal Force” won a Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Press Foundation’s Innovation in Journalism Award. Two Washington Post journalists described in detail how the Post methodically documented police shootings and designed the project. It began after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – when the FBI admitted it had no reliable data – and continues today.
“We made the decision very early to gather only people who were shot by police officers. We did not want people who died by Tasers or in crashes due to a car chase because we wanted to show an apples-to-apples comparison to the Michael Brown shooting,” said Julie Tate, a Washington Post researcher who has worked on nine Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. “This did mean some heartache at points in the project when people died in suspicious circumstances by Taser.”
John Muyskens, Washington Post graphics editor, helped build the internal database with Django and Python tools as well as the public-facing presentation.
By the end of 2015, the Post had created a robust database cataloging every fatal shooting nationwide by a police officer in the line of duty – 991 in all. The database is an excellent resource for reporters across the country; it is sortable by state, gender, race, age, mental illness, weapon involved, presence of a body camera, and whether the suspect was fleeing the scene.
In 2016, the Post turned its attention to gathering the names of the police officers involved in the shootings. They filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests and pored over public records. In the end, they were able to identify about half of the law officers; many names were protected by city and state law.
All told, there were 963 police shootings in 2016. By mid-August 2017 the total was 619, on course to top 900 again.
The Post staff also focused on digging up as many videos as possible from body cameras or vehicle cameras. The dramatic videos helped breathe life into the raw statistical data about the victims. Just 6 percent of the shootings were caught on body camera.
Then-FBI director James Comey said the Post’s exhaustive work was embarrassing to the agency and he vowed to collect better data. It has not materialized to date.
Some other takeaways from the project:
*Victims’ mental illness played a role in one-quarter of the police shootings.
*One in 10 fatal shootings involved a suspect who was unarmed.
*One in four involved a suspect who was fleeing.
*In three-quarters of the fatal shootings, police were under attack or defending someone who was.
The two Post staffers also described how they worked with American University student journalists to help collect some of the data, an idea that could be replicated in almost any newsroom.