D. Brian Burghart is a journalist who has tried to compile a database of all the people killed by police officers in the United States. Most are shocked to find out that no such database exists and that there aren’t reliable numbers on how many are killed because police departments aren’t forced to report them. He explains why he thinks that is:
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.
It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.
I’ve been lied to and delayed by state, county and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time. They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency. And these are the people in charge of enforcing the law.The second biggest thing I learned is that bad journalism colludes with police to hide this information. The primary reason for this is that police will cut off information to reporters who tell tales. And a reporter can’t work if he or she can’t talk to sources. It happened to me on almost every level as I advanced this year-long Fatal Encounters series through the News & Review. First they talk; then they stop, then they roadblock.
Take Philadelphia for example. In Philadelphia, the police generally don’t disclose the names of victims of police violence, and they don’t disclose the names of police officers who kill people. What reporter has time to go to the most dangerous sections of town to try to find someone who knows the name of the victim or the details of a killing? At night, on deadline, are you kidding? So with no victim and no officer, there’s no real story, but the information is known, consumed and mulled over in an ever-darkening cloud of neighborhood anger.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he’s right about this. The federal government tracks every single detail of crimes committed, but mostly ignores the entire issue of how many people are killed by law enforcement (whether justified or not, and many of them will be justified).