Why No Database of Police Killings Exists

Why No Database of Police Killings Exists December 8, 2014

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).

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  • caseloweraz

    There are of course the well-known cases, like Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian — and that case in Philadelphia where the police chief at the time laid siege to a building housing protesters and IIRC burned it down by accident. And I think newspaper morgues would yield a good deal of data.

    But yes, law enforcement at all levels has a motivation to conceal such information, and no doubt does so in most cases.

  • brucegee1962

    I think that the ONLY way this will change is if the directive comes down from the very top — ie. Obama. Of course, if he told the FBI to do its job, that would doubtless be seen as another example of executive overreach. Apparently doing anything other than playing golf is executive overreach, and playing golf is goofing off, so he’s always going to be doing one or the other.

  • asonge

    caseloweraz: It burned down “by accident”, except it was blown up on purpose (an explosive charge was used to try to dislodge MOVE from a rooftop fortification, which set the fire that was intentionally allowed to burn most of them alive).

  • doublereed

    Yea, they collect statistics on basically everything, as I learned when I looked up the hate crimes database. They have lots of information and all sorts of various details. And apparently this information is all required to collect and report.

    The idea that they do not collect this specific information is almost certainly deliberate. That is way too huge an oversight. I’m glad this guy is bringing it to people’s attention. States and such might start requiring the information even if the FBI drags its feet.

  • Look, the System works best when nobody looks too closely (try picking apart a watch and see how well it functions afterwards!). If those criminals hadn’t being committing criminal acts they wouldn’t be dead, and if they so-called “were not” committing criminal acts, they should’ve tried not to look so suspicious or dangerous and put their hands up and put their hands up higher and not brandished threatening items like Skittles or skin color. Reacting to so-called police “overreactions” is itself an overreaction. Every so-called “bad” cop you take off The Streets makes the Thin Blue Line separating Civilization from Anarchy that much thinner.

    If an unknown number of Americans have to die unnecessarily in order to make me feel safe, then that’s a small price for other people to pay.

  • eric

    Some military vets can correct me if I’m wrong, but in the military and outside of the battlefield and shooting ranges, isn’t basically every discharge of a firearm noted and investigated? Doesn’t matter whether it leads to a death or even an injury, and it doesn’t matter if the person has a good reason for doing it or not, AIUI every single event is recorded and noted.

    Our police are more casual about gun use and killing than our army.

  • lordshipmayhem

    There are times I’m glad I live where I do, rather than south of the border. Even if the local police give a civilian a paper cut, it has to be reported and investigated – by a special organization outside of the police.

    And that includes incidents where the civilian in question is not suspected of anything – if a cop gets into a car accident while rushing on the way to a crime scene gets reported and investigated by this outside organization.

  • marcus

    caseloweraz “… IIRC burned it down by accident. ”

    Also what asonge @ 3 said and by doing so he burned down a large portion of the surrounding neighborhood as well.

    What a fucking idiot!

  • marcus

    lordshipmayhem @ 7 Wounds well-salted, thanks so much! (It makes no sense that this not S.O.P. in Amerikastan as well.)

  • John Horstman

    I tried to write an undergrad research paper on police killings, with access to the majority of US-based scientific journals. I failed in my attempt; my paper morphed into a methodological consideration of my failure. I arrived at the same conclusion as Burghart, based on my assessment of others’ efforts to get data: the obfuscation is intentional.

  • magistramarla

    I saw a report of a police shooting on the local noon news today. Wouldn’t the archives of TV news stations and local papers result in some data?

  • marcus

    MO @ 7 You post is depressingly close to most of the comments I’ve read posted at the MSM sites (almost verbatim). Obviously, it almost impossible to satirize how deeply racist a large part of our population really is.