Journalist D. Brian Burghart saw a gaping information hole when he realized no one knows how many civilians are killed by law enforcement every year. So he launched the database Fatal Encounters to keep track.
This story was updated on March 20, 2014.
Aiyana Jones and Eugene Mallory don’t appear to have much in common. Jones was 7, a black grade schooler from Detroit with her whole life ahead of her. Mallory was 80, white and, after putting in his dues as an engineer for Lockeed Martin, was well into retirement in a Los Angeles suburb.
What they do have in common is violent, sudden death at the hands of police officers. Aiyana was shot to death during a raid on her home in 2010, and Mallory was shot to death in a raid on his home in 2012. Both were innocent of any crime – and they are far from alone. How far, though, no one knows.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks how many cops are killed in the line of duty but has refused to count how many American civilians are killed by police. But if local figures serve as a guide, the number isn’t a small one. In Los Angeles County alone, officers killed an average 41 people every year from 2007 to 2013.
D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review and journalism instructor at University of Nevada, found the lack of information untenable.
He saw it as an information hole that he, as a journalist, was obligated to fill. Recently, Burghart launched Fatal Encounters, a website that tracks and tallies when cops take lives and invites the public to help build the database. He has compiled a full list of police agencies in the country to facilitate public record requests about fatal incidents.
“In 2014, how could we not know how many people our government kills on our streets every year,” he wondered.
With the proliferation of smartphones that are able to shoot high-quality videos and immediately post them to social media, it’s hard to say whether disturbing incidents – like last year’s beating by Long Beach, California, police of Porfirio Lopez as he lay prone and helpless or the shooting death of Manny Lopez in Anaheim, California, as he lay handcuffed on his belly – are increasing or just gaining more attention. The lack of data makes it impossible to comprehensively monitor such events and track trend lines.
This has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to ask whether Detroit police really needed “amped-up military equipment routinely used in nighttime raids in Iraq and Afghanistan,” when they crashed into Aiyana Jones’ home and killed her and whether “access to the tools and tactics of a combat theater unnecessarily encourage more aggressive policing.”
“The unfortunate reality is there’s a psychological split in police officers’ minds here in the US,” said Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, founder of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails. “In other countries, the military is very clear that they are the military. In the US, law enforcement is trained as both military and to be part of the community.”
Cullors-Brignac also pointed to a machismo culture that stigmatizes admitting psychological trauma, meaning police officers, some of whom are combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, often suffering from PTSD in silence and act out violently on the communities they are meant to serve.
“Things like the war on drugs, the war on gangs, that’s actual language they use that allows them to use military force,” she said. The mindset creates an outlook where residents in American neighborhoods end up being potential “insurgents” and the police a militarized, occupying force.
Since the advent of the War on Drugs and more so since 9/11, police departments have virtually limitless access to federal grants, military equipment and training, the ACLU reports. But while the body count of innocent American civilians on the wrong end of this ratcheting up of force has continued to mount, there hasn’t been much public oversight.
This has prompted the ACLU to launch a broad study on the connection between police militarization and aggressive policing practices that resulted in casualties like Aiyana Jones and Eugene Mallory.
Tracking Patterns, Demanding Accountability
Burghart hopes his database can serve as a valuable resource in determining how fatal encounters with police officers can be avoided. Already, he’s noticed patterns in the data that could prove powerful tools. Aside from criminal behavior, Burghart said, the biggest factors common to officer-involved shootings are mental illness, race and gender. Men are far and away more likely to be killed by cops than women.
“Mental illness – this is the big untold story,” he said.
High-profile cases like the gruesome 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless Fullerton, California, man, have captured national media attention. But Alex Salazar, former Los Angeles Police Department officer who now helps officers with PTSD and works as a private investigator with victims of police violence, doubts it would have been so high-profile if it weren’t caught on tape.
Outrage over the incident brought massive protests to Fullerton and resulted in two of the six involved Fullerton cops, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli being charged with murder and manslaughter, respectively. Both were acquitted.
But were it not for the video footage, Salazar doubts the ex-cops would have been prosecuted.
“If they have a badge, they have a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said. “They can say, ‘I was in fear for my life.’ “
Burghart covered in-depth a tragic officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of a severely depressed Monica Ritchey in front of her two daughters. Ritchey was suicidal and armed, and had shot one of her daughters in the hip prompting police to fire at her.
Update: Since this story was published, an attorney for Ritchey’s daughter told Burghart that it was police officers who shot Ritchey’s daughter in the hip. The story is developing here.
Were it not for Burghart’s coverage, the case would have gotten little attention. The way the media covers these stories is part of the problem, he said.
“It was a crime scene of the sort that makes news producers and editors drool – police and perps with guns blazing, a family in distress, blood in the street and sudden death in quiet suburbia,” he wrote in the Reno News & Review. “The only problem was that the local news media was asleep at the press, and apparently nobody – not the newspapers, not the television news stations, not the radio stations, not the all-seeing internet – got this story right. They didn’t even bother to find out or to report the victim’s names.”
Newsrooms have dwindling staffs and don’t have the financial means to sue law enforcement agencies that withhold information. So reporters, who are supposed to have an accountability-based relationship with authorities, end up sidling up to them as though they are on the same team.
“It’s that old: if it bleeds it leads. They’ll cover the incident where somebody gets shot, but they don’t cover context,” Burghart said. “Sometimes, they don’t even come back and find out who got killed. They don’t show a picture of that person; they don’t humanize them because they’re afraid that police will see that as inciting the public against them.”
Reporters are overworked, overwhelmed and often undertrained for their jobs, he said.
“They get a press release from police, and their job is just to do data entry.”
L.A. County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 94-pound schizophrenic woman Jazmyne Ha Eng in the lobby of a clinic, but despite her diminutive size and conflicting reports from the family’s attorney that she was posing no threat, the district attorney’s office ruled the shooting lawful self-defense.
Six Michigan police officers who shot mentally ill, aging homeless man Milton Hall 11 times over an allegedly stolen cup of coffee also were not charged.
Police officers who shot and killed 15-year-old autistic child Stephon Watts – who, family says, was holding a butter knife and posed no threat – were not charged.
Some agencies with specialized response teams have better outcomes when dealing with psychological emergencies and those better outcomes may be a result of policy and training, among other factors, he said.
But another factor is accountability.
Police agencies often investigate each other, or the local district attorneys investigate the police force they depend upon.
“It’s law enforcement investigating law enforcement,” Burghart said. Often the findings aren’t public. Even L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina doesn’t have access to sheriff’s deputies’ use-of-force investigations.
In the absence of data, it’s impossible to assess where problematic patterns lie and thus address them. There’s a lot of speculation based on observation and anecdotal evidence. But Burghart thinks essential information will save lives in the future.
“That’s one of the reasons for making this database, so law enforcement can look and pinpoint the places with the best outcomes and create policies based on other agencies’ best practices,” he said. “If there was some way to look at what the best practices are, their practices could be modified.”