Last Wednesday, we launched an impossibly ambitious project: cataloguing every police-involved shooting in America over the last three years. After one week, we're further along than we could have imagined.
So far, we have collected over 1,500 incidents of police-involved shootings from 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, and have at least one incident logged on over 45 percent of days in those four years. We owe everyone who's chipped in so far a round of drinks when this is all over—and for anyone who hasn't yet but would like to, we still have a long way to go and more hands are always welcome. This is an update on what's happened since, but if you want, you can take a look at the data here, and skip to the bottom of this post for the guidelines and submission form.
We've run into some complications, obviously. Out the gate, our plan to operate in a completely open spreadsheet on Google Drive quickly proved itself to be a terrible idea, both because it was easy for trolls to delete the entire thing and because of Google's limit of 50 concurrent users. Thanks to a number of helpful readers (and most specifically Sergio Hernandez, who's been a godsend), we set up a form submission process that we think helps keep our data a little more organized. The entries from the original spreadsheet will be imported around the time that we move onto the next phase.
Speaking of, for anyone peeking down the line: Once data collection starts to wind down (but after we de-dupe), we will move onto verification and fact checking. This will be a less sprawling process, but will still require a dedicated effort to ensure that every fact is accurate, and that every missing fact is indeed unattainable. From there, we will begin building the actual database. We have had a number of generous offers to help with this, and we'll be taking up anyone who's offered advice or support.
We aren't the only ones trying to put together a database like this. On Gawker, Brian Burghart wrote about the institutional ignorance he's encountered over two years of assembling his own database, Fatal Encounters. We've also been in touch with the Gun Violence Archive, which is as professional and sober-minded a shop as you'll find, with 10 researchers—librarians and sysadmins, mainly—scanning 750 newspapers a day, police blotters, FOIA requests, and quarterly stat dumps by departments. The GVA, funded by Michael Klein of the Sunlight Foundation, was born out of Slate's 2013 effort to count every gun-related death in America, but has grown beyond "counting coffins." Today, it tracks every gun-related incident in the country, and has generously offered to send us its 2014 officer-related incidents. By its count, there have been more than 1,300 officer-involved shootings this year alone.
The job all these organizations are doing is important, and one that can and should affect actual policy. In 2011, Lawrence Mower headed a series at the Las Vegas Review-Journal where he collected case summary files on every police-involved shooting from 1990 to 2010 in southern Nevada and published the data—there were nearly 400 in total, the largest data dump at the time. The series ran over five days; by the second day, the Department of Justice had contacted the Review-Journal, and over the next several months the DOJ worked with local departments to improve their policies on lethal force and "respecting human life" going forward. Simple policy shifts were put into place, like avoiding situations that can easily escalate, like trying to avoid surrounding a suspect's car with him in it—a glance at any of the police-involved shooting databases will show you a curious number of "vehicle as a weapon" cases—or only giving chase on foot if the suspect is extremely dangerous.
"But most departments never have to face that," Mower says. Instead of confronting the ledger and what lies beneath it. "They just pretend nothing's wrong."
Here are our updated guidelines:
- Using Google's search tools, isolate a single day (e.g. Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2011) and search for the term "police involved shooting" (don't use quotation marks). Use Chrome's Incognito mode when searching to ensure you aren't getting local results.
- Read each link on the first 10 pages of results; for any instances of shootings involving a police officer, log them in the form.
- We're looking at 2011, 2012, and 2013, and tracking date, name, age, gender, race/ethnicity, injured/killed, and a number of other fields. Please be as thorough as possible with each incident, and provide links to where you found the information (this will be crucial during verification).
- Often, the first day of reports will not have personal details, and a second search of subsequent days will fill in more of the story.
- Before starting in, take a look at the submissions here and pick a day that no one has begun ("Not Checked" in the third sheet). Remember, we're starting off by looking at just the past three years.
- A later death, after a person is hospitalized in a police-involved shooting, is considered a death for our purposes.
- We are looking for any incidence of a police officer shooting and hitting another person. This can be off-duty if the officer was acting in a law-enforcement capacity.
- We are not looking for incidences of police officers discharging their weapons and hitting no one. In a perfect world these would be tracked, since often the only difference is that the shot missed, but these incidents are not as thoroughly reported and would probably bias the data.
- Please keep the data as neat as possible. Work within specific months, make sure you're in the correct year, keep the columns clean, add peripheral information in the "Summary" portion, etc.
As a reminder, all of our data will be completely public (you should feel free to use it now, with attribution to our users). If you have any additional data to contribute, or any other thoughts, advice, or questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images News