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One man is tracking every officer-involved killing in the U.S.

Fatal Encounters:

“The number of people killed by police is microscopically small,” D. Brian Burghart said, but those deaths “symbolize systematic racism.”July 11, 2020, 6:09 AM EDTBy Alicia Victoria Lozano

For nearly two months, protesters around the world filled city streets, marched on government buildings and demanded justice for George FloydBreonna TaylorElijah McClain and Andres Guardado — all who died during encounters with law enforcement.

But for every high-profile police-related killing, there have been countless others where the names and faces of the victims never made national headlines. Much of what we do know about these deaths comes from the work of one man.

U.S. NEWS

Fatal Encounters: One man is tracking every officer-involved killing in the U.S.

“The number of people killed by police is microscopically small,” D. Brian Burghart said, but those deaths “symbolize systematic racism.”July 11, 2020, 6:09 AM EDTBy Alicia Victoria Lozano

For nearly two months, protesters around the world filled city streets, marched on government buildings and demanded justice for George FloydBreonna TaylorElijah McClain and Andres Guardado — all who died during encounters with law enforcement.

But for every high-profile police-related killing, there have been countless others where the names and faces of the victims never made national headlines. Much of what we do know about these deaths comes from the work of one man.null

D. Brian Burghart, a former reporter and editor, has dedicated eight years to doing what federal agencies have not done: meticulously track every known law enforcement officer-involved killing in the United States. The result is Fatal Encounters, a national database that shines a light into the darkest corners of policing in America.

D. Brian Burghart.
D. Brian Burghart.Courtesy D. Brian Burghart

As of July 10, Fatal Encounters lists more than 28,400 deaths dating to Jan. 1, 2000. The entries include both headline-making cases and thousands of lesser-known deaths.

Burghart uses what’s known as open-source information gleaned from news reports and public records to chronicle each reported killing. Users can search by name, age, race, gender, date, city and more to find people who have died during interactions with police.

On his website, Burghart modestly calls Fatal Encounters a “step towards creating an impartial, comprehensive and searchable national database.” Observers have been far more laudatory. A 2019 critical review of his work by the Journal of Open Health Data called it the “largest collection of PRDs [Police Related Deaths] in the United States and remains as the most likely source for historical trend comparisons and police-department level analyses of the causes of PRDs.” Other databases do exist, including The Counted by The Guardian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post Fatal Force project, but neither go as far back as 2000

In the years since Burghart started the project, national news organizations have come to see the import of this sort of large database, both as a means of educating the public and encouraging transparency between law enforcement and civilians.

For Burghart it began with one death. “It started when the government told me, ‘No,’” he said. “I’m a journalist. You don’t tell me ‘No.’”

In 2012, Burghart drove by a scene that was “plainly chaos.” Everything about what he saw – the heavy police presence and flashing lights — instinctively told Burghart, an investigative journalist by training, that someone had a fatal encounter with law enforcement.

Burghart went home, turned on his police scanner and waited. Police officers had pulled over, then shot and killed a man named Jace Herndon, who was driving what turned out to be a stolen car.

Burghart scanned local news reports. He wanted to know how many other people in his area had died during interactions with police. But that information was missing from every story.

That bothered him. A few months later, an 18-year-old college student, Gil Collar, was killed by University of South Alabama campus police. Again, Burghart wondered how often that happens.

“The earliest thing I found out was that nobody knew,” he said.

At the time Burghart was the editor and publisher of The Reno News & Review in Nevada, a free alternative weekly based in “the biggest little city in the world.” As he became more and more intrigued by the lack of information surrounding the deaths of Collar and Herndon, Burghart channeled his interest in data to begin the task of figuring out just how many people die each year during interactions with law enforcement.

He started with the official counts. “I always feel like the numbers are the truth,” he said.

His initial plan was to get the mailing addresses of every law enforcement agency in the country — he estimates there were about 16,000 at the time — that participated in the Department of Justice’s yearly Uniform Crime Report, the largest collection of crime data available in the U.S.

He then intended to crowdsource public records requests to each one of those agencies. But he knew not all agencies are required to participate; there is no national mandate to report local crime statistics to the federal government.

Burghart hit a roadblock with the FBI, which told him the agency did not maintain a running list of all law enforcement departments in the country that contribute to the Uniform Crime Report. Undeterred, he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for new information and was eventually able to submit some 2,500 additional requests to various agencies.

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