Fatal Encounters: Journalist D. Brian Burghart Tries to Determine How Often People Are Killed By Law EnforcementWritten by Nick Miller
Samantha Bee of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is in a hurry. She rushes down a New York City sidewalk but then bumps into Nate Silver, the data journalist—formerly of The New York Times and now of ESPN—known for predicting the last presidential elections’ outcomes.
She stops, and while you might say that Bee appears a little frantic, she’s also relieved. That’s because, on the heels of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a cop in Ferguson, Mo., she’s trying to learn more about the data behind officer-involved shootings. Like, for instance, how many people die each year at the hands of cops?
Bee grabs Silver, the nation’s foremost stat geek, on the shoulder, then asks him, “How many people were shot and killed last year by the police?”
“I don’t …” Silver begins. “Those statistics just don’t exist.”
Facepalm. Bee appears incredulous. Eventually, she moves on, ever-frustrated.
This scene isn’t from the real world. It’s part of a Daily Show episode that aired in October. In this segment, Bee simply cannot believe that there is not a national database keeping track of officer-involved shootings. She searches everywhere—from universities to the FBI—to find answers. But no dice.
Then, at the end of the segment, she meets up with D. Brian Burghart.
Burghart is the editor of the Reno News & Review. (It should also be noted that he’s a close friend of Independent publisher Jimmy Boegle.) In his spare time, he also is in charge of Fatal Encounters, a website dedicated to crowdsourcing a comprehensive and searchable database of all police-involved shootings.
Fatal Encounters launched in February, and it’s since documented more than 3,000 officer-involved shootings across the nation. This data is acquired via public-record requests, and is crowdsourced from readers.
During the past year, Burghart’s site has turned him into a de facto expert when it comes to issues like Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York police, or Brown’s killing by an officer in Ferguson. He has appeared on CNN multiple times, and had his work featured by Gawker, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Al-Jazeera America.
As major protests—from Los Angeles and Oakland to New York City—have brought police killings and the oversight thereof to the forefront of America’s water-cooler news cycle. Burghart took the time to discuss this country’s outrage, what reform of fatal police encounters might look like—and if any of this will even make a difference.
Let’s talk about what everyone seems to be discussing: Eric Garner, the non-indictment of the officer who killed him, and the thousands of activists in New York City’s streets. There’s total outrage. What do you make of it, and what impact do you think it will have?
I don’t think it will have much impact at all, to be honest.
After Michael Brown—when entire towns are taken over, and people are outraged—the entire country turns around and looks. In New York, this officer literally broke police procedures and used the chokehold, that was not supposed to be used, and the grand jury still does not indict. I don’t have hope that this is going to change things. I cannot believe that it will change things.
Do you see indictments of cops that have killed?
Almost never. It’s gotta be something so egregious. In Nevada, it’s generally been car accidents. … If a law-enforcement officer is late for dinner and is going 100 mph down the freeway and kills somebody, those people get indicted and go to jail. … But as far as officer-involved shootings, it’s almost gotta be … like a first-degree murder situation before they are indicted, because grand juries have not shown any desire to second-guess officers.
But Garner was clearly not a threat. So many people have seen video of his death; you have politicians speaking out; you’ve got thousands of people in the street—
This stuff mystifies me. It just mystifies me. I don’t know what that grand jury saw, but—
Do you think part of the problem is the information prosecutors give these grand juries?
I’m sure it is. But I don’t know. I can’t say specifically.
Is this why the Ferguson grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson?
When we’re talking about this pattern, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it’s the grand-jury system that we actually need to be looking at. It’s the system of … what kind of oversight (we) have over law enforcement.
… It makes a lot of sense to me to have a state agency doing an independent review of police shootings and overseeing it all. Do any states do that?
Yeah, there are a couple. Massachusetts—oh boy, I’m going to get this wrong as soon as I start spouting out specific states. I believe the ones we found were Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont. I think those are the three.
So sort of liberal, East Coast, blue-state policy. But do they indict?
No, not to a greater degree, no.
But, then … the non-Wild West states tend to have much lower numbers than the West does. For example I heard, I think it was a (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report that said California is the worst.
How did we get here?
It would be very difficult for me to answer that question. These things happen incrementally. A lot of people blame the police unions for constantly asking for a little more slack for officers. I think, historically, it’s a racial issue. So much of the pre-Civil Rights revolution was police keeping down people of color. You gave a lot of slack, mainly because you were part of it. It’s like in Albuquerque (with the killing of mentally ill, homeless man James Boyd): Anytime we see somebody trying to change the status quo, a change in the balance of power, you see authority killing people. I think that’s how we got there.
It’s interesting that you mention the unions, because in Sacramento, Mayor Kevin Johnson called the Ferguson verdict an injustice. Then, the head of the police union here called the mayor out: He said what happened with Darren Wilson, what happened in Ferguson, was justice. And he took this sort of bizarrely out of touch hard line against the mayor.
That is extremely common.
It was so brazen.
Those guys are law and order, right? So, by definition, the decision of the grand jury is the law. So, of course they would be that way. They are not going to step out of their uniforms and say … “Hey, there is something wrong with that. There is something wrong with the procedure that created that verdict.”
Let’s rewind. How common is this Darren Wilson/Michael Brown scenario? People are submitting tons of data to you, you’re getting all kinds of stuff—
I’ve never sat down and tried to analyze it that way. Some of that stuff is impossible to quantify with numbers. But, anecdotally, it’s incredibly common. … You hear about it in the news all the time. Every week—12-year-old kids getting shot because they have a BB gun. Somebody in a Walmart getting shot because they have a BB gun. Somebody getting shot because they have a knife, and they’re 20 feet away, and the officer feels threatened.
Is this often racial?
I think it often is. (Burghart asks to go on hold.) Sorry about that; that was Al-Jazeera. They are going to interview me at 1 p.m.
You’re a go-to guy now when it comes to officer-involved shootings?
Yeah, it’s really common. … I’ll be on CNN again tomorrow. I was in The Washington Post on Monday. I was in The Washington Post on Tuesday. I was on CNN. Yeah, it’s really freaking crazy.
Let’s talk about that. You started this project almost two years ago?
That’s a little bit of a stretch. I kinda had the idea two years ago. That’s when I first realized that there was no national database. I haven’t been researching this for two years, but I was driving home from work one night and … the police had the street blocked off, and I could see that either a cop had died, or a cop had killed somebody. It was just obvious from the stance of the people and the looks on their faces.
I went home, and I was curious: “How often does that happen?” Nevada was what I was really looking at. I couldn’t find the information. … Then, a few months later, there was another high-profile officer-involved homicide. This kid, Gil Collar at the University of South Alabama … he was naked, on drugs and, in my imagination, I imagine he went to get help, and this cop came out, and they danced around a little bit. But this kid ended up dead, shot in the chest, when there is no way to imagine that this kid was a threat.
A naked, unarmed teen freaking out on drugs.
Eighteen years old, about 135 pounds. I just couldn’t believe it. And they let that (officer) off. He didn’t try any less-lethal methods. If he called for backup, that’s not part of the narrative as I know it. I just couldn’t believe it. …
I’m a kid of the Internet—not really a kid, but I’ve been doing it for a long time—and I said, “Well, shit, somebody’s got to do this, and if nobody’s going to do it, but everybody is going to complain about it, I’m just going to build it.” I knew it would be hard. It was never supposed to be anything but a hobby, you know?
Dozens, maybe more, people help you crowdsource data. You’re on The Daily Show. This issue is magnetic. Yet you still aren’t optimistic about meaningful change, because of the power of law enforcement and the unions and the justice system?
Sounds cynical, doesn’t it? When you look over at thousands upon thousands of these things, it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy.
President Obama: He wants more police training, maybe on-body cameras, and he wants the Department of Justice to go in and fix things, right?
That’s what he says.
Let’s talk about putting $1,000 cameras on cops.
How many did they say?
It wasn’t that many, right?
He said 50,000.
Do cameras accomplish anything? What is the good and bad of that?
There are 1.2 million, full- and part-time, sworn and un-sworn law-enforcement officers in the United States. I would have to say 50,000 is not a huge effort. Again, it seems a little like lip service to me. It’s a step in the right direction, like my website is a step in the right direction. It’s just a step. We need reform across the board.
So what does reform look like?
I think it looks like better system oversight—better system oversight boards with teeth. I think it means things like cameras. I think it means things like setting parameters for reactions in certain situations. For example, if an officer says, “I feared for my life,” but the evidence shows there was no weapon—there was no reason to be afraid, but you had the person outgunned, a gun versus nothing—I think we have to question whether that’s a place where deadly force is reasonable.
… The trend in Sacramento seems to be either officer-involved shootings that are gang- or mental-health related. Is that an officer-training thing?
I think it is. I think that is the big untold story in these officer-involved homicides. We recognize that race is a big component. But it’s not the only component. It may be as high as 30 percent of the people killed by police are mentally ill.
Yeah, I know. It’s just unbelievable that we don’t talk about it more. But when you think about it, somebody who is mentally ill is the person most likely to act in a way that would put the officer’s life in jeopardy.
Which cities or states are models when it comes to reform?
It’s too soon to tell that. When I look at what seems to work on the Eastern Seaboard, it seems apparent to me that they are doing things different, but what those things are, I can’t tell you. But I do know, it seems, well, it is worse in the West. And I haven’t even gotten a Southern state done yet. So, there you go.
I looked at all that stuff in Memphis when all that stuff was happening in Albuquerque, and I think they were killing black men at three times the rate they were killing people in Albuquerque. It was stunning.
So, when Obama says, “Eric Holder is coming in; the DOJ is coming in,” is there teeth?
When the feds come in and take over a police department and retrain them, it seems to work. In Albuquerque, in Las Vegas, in Oakland—was it Spokane?—it seems to have a positive effect on the numbers, on the outcomes.
Is this a red state/blue state thing?
I have no idea. I haven’t analyzed it from that point of view. It is really weird that this is kind of a liberal issue. That makes no sense to me at all. From my point of view, oversight and good use of spending money is generally a fiscal issue; it’s a conservative issue. But since everything is politicized…
There’s just not a lot of sympathy for issues that impact poor people and minorities.
You know how you were talking about law enforcement being tone deaf? Republicans, as much as they like to be known as fiscal conservatives, are also law enforcement. They will stand behind law enforcement, right or wrong. That’s the only thing I can figure.
Tell me about some of the media coverage for Fatal Encounters. What are people saying about what you are doing?
Again, far-right and liberal types think it’s great—think the time has come. I can’t tell you how many emails I get on a daily basis from universities that want to help, or where people want to use our data for whatever project they want. And we share it. I’m the editor of a newspaper in Reno who is on The Daily Show. It’s been amazing. It just blows me away.
You caught lightning in a bottle with Fatal Encounters. This became the issue of the year, and you were there already with actually data and knowledge, something already up and running.
I still have hopes that a big, non-governmental agency—a university, a think tank, a nonprofit, something besides the government—will pick this job up and carry it through to the end zone.
Do you think there is a high probability of that happening now?
Hmm, no. Because we’re doing too good of a job, to be honest. I formed a 501(c)(3) on it, and we’re eligible to apply for grants. It just keeps plugging away. It’s a manageable amount of work; it’s still just a hobby. There’s no profit in it. And I just can’t imagine those big networks or big newspapers—they’ll be on to the next thing as soon as the fire trucks go home.
Sure, just look at Ebola.
No, we’re done with Ebola. I’ve seen this in Fullerton, where they beat (homeless man) Kelly Thomas to death. He was mentally ill. The homeless guy in Albuquerque that got on camera; they killed him over camping. They had riots there, not on the level of Ferguson. Each time, it seems like it goes a little higher, like it’s a little more, the reaction is a little more violent. It worries me.
Let’s put it that way: The reactions across the country seem to be increasing, and the only way that those are going to calm down is that real reform happens.
So, the cameras go away; this all dies down; you keep plugging away at your project. What’s your timeline?
It depends on how much funding we get. We’ve calculated we could get a comprehensive database in two years with two full-time people.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here.
It feels like we said everything. Honestly, I’m so tired of talking about this.
I’m the Editor of the Reno News & Review. This thing is just a hobby, but if I don’t talk, then nobody talks. I didn’t do this because I have any interest in police brutality. I just thought it needs to exist, so if I don’t talk when people want to talk, I feel like I’m avoiding my responsibility, not living up to what I set out to do or something. So I just keep talking.