Publisher’s Note: I was intrigued when I ran across D. Brian Burghart on the web. He is the editor/publisher of the Reno News & Review, a dual-master’s student and journalism instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He started Fatal Encounters, www.fatalencounters.org, which went live on Feb. 27, 2014, to create a crowd-sourced, objective and comprehensive database of people killed during interactions with police and the circumstances surrounding the killing. Please understand that while Brian may not be a subscriber to the philosophy of this website and the abolitionist community, he is working toward a common goal. My questions are in italics. -BB
What brought to this Fatal Encounters project? Give us a little background on your interest in this.
This project was metaphorically conceived on May 18, 2012, as I was driving home from my job at the newspaper. A bunch of police cars had a street cordoned off, and I could just see that something serious had happened. My guess, and I was right, was that police had shot and killed somebody. When I got home, I was just curious how often that happened. I couldn’t find the information for the city, county, state or country. In my research, I discovered there was no national database focusing on circumstances in which police killed people. In the 21st century, I just could not accept that absence of data. I was offended that our government wanted us ignorant with regard to this. I thought about the ramifications of this lack of information for quite some time. That’s when a naked, drug-addled, unarmed, 18-year-old college student, Gil Collar, was killed by a police officer at the University of Southern Alabama. No less lethal methods of restraint were tried. On that day, I realized that somebody was going to have to create a system by which regular people could build this database, otherwise it was never going to exist. To sustain the metaphor, that was the day Fatal Encounters was born.
With over 19,000 departments and nearly a million statist badged police in the US, the culture of violence has ramped up significantly. Is police violence against civilians reaching epidemic proportions?
My numbers suggest closer to 1.2 million full- and part-time sworn and full- and part-time “civilian” state and local police, and that doesn’t include federal officers, but my information is a few years old, maybe its gone down. I don’t know the answer to this question. It certainly seems like incidents have increased, but since the database is not yet complete, we have no way of knowing whether numbers of incidents have increased, or whether it’s just our awareness has been raised by things like social media, but the numbers of incidents have actually decreased.
Why is it worse now?
Again, I’m not willing to say it is worse without the solid numbers. From my own experience as a journalist, I can say that government agencies are more antagonistic to giving out public documents or being transparent with their actions. I know that ex-military personnel get preferential treatment in hiring for government jobs. I know that there are a lot of military surplus weapons and vehicles being made available to state and local law enforcement. I know that government surveillance of citizens has increased post-911, which creates a society that flip-flops the citizen/government relationship, which would tend to make those who represent government authority more willing to take forceful action against citizens.
What is the impact or negative contribution of the DoD/Pentagon 1033 program and other lend/lease deals for the police departments?
Increased militarization of gear, personnel and training creates situations in which police response is already heightened and more intimidating, which tends to escalate crisis situations. While the apparent intention is to tamp down crisis situations with ostensibly overwhelming force, my feeling is that the result is often the opposite.
There is an evil trifecta, I believe, in police unions, qualified immunity and officer safety training that provides some uniquely perverse incentives to encourage and justify bad behavior toward taxpayers. What are your thoughts?
To me, it all comes down to training and culture. People in government bureaucracies are very good at following orders and protocol. If the training and culture are such that police are trained and enabled to get the best outcomes in whatever situation with which they are presented, we’ll have better outcomes. But look at what we appear to hold as the standard in our culture. You don’t have to go any further than the silver screen to see that we present vigilantes (comic book superheroes) as something to be emulated. How many times in the movies or on television are police presented as protecting people’s rights versus being extra-judicial judges?
What are some of the causes of the thuggish behavior seen by people on the streets when cops encounter civilians?
That’s another difficult question to answer. The only time I ever experienced “thuggish” behavior from a cop was when a Harris County deputy bounced my head off my car in Texas in 1982 because he didn’t like yankees. Other than that, I think that police are trained to demand immediate obedience in the most incidental of matters, but as tension and numbers of officers/people increase, police are more likely to use force to coerce obedience. Constitutional rights of others take a secondary role to their own rights to life in unpredictable situations. And the courts have enabled this philosophy time and time again. Even though I constantly see Facebook videos “How to act when an officer asks for identification” that suggest an individual has a right to refuse to show ID unless the officer can state an infraction, I know this is not true because the U.S. Supreme Court in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada found that the very act of asking for ID created an investigation. The result is we have police and people believing opposite things are the law, and that can create a situation where two right-minded individuals can become hostile. We believe we have a Second Amendment that gives us the right to carry guns, but the courts find again and again, the possession and sometimes the imagined possession of a firearm is enough to justify an officer killing someone without repercussion.
The Feds maintain the most banal databases and statistics yet they do not have a monolithic database that tracks police brutality.
The Justice Department was told by Congress to collect statistics on police use of deadly force. It was in the 1994 Crime Control Act, (second section). Here’s the Justice Department’s statistical page, which I believe is how the Justice Department interpreted Congress’ mandate. As you can see from the documents at the bottom, they don’t track incidents–they sort of track complaints–and they don’t track anything in a meaningful way that allows people to make comparisons for the purpose of reforming or modifying protocols or training. In fact, the last document on the page is mainly concerned with how hard and inaccurate such a document would be, but how they could do it in some undefined future. Why is that? Because government doesn’t want us to know the true numbers. There is no other reasonable explanation.
There is an apocryphal number bandied about that 5000 Americans have been murdered by cops since 2001 but some, including myself, believe this to be a low number. Have you arrived at an estimate for total injured and dead at the hands of police? Do you also think there is a severe under-reporting and non-reporting problem in determining the total numbers? The real gorilla in the room is the number of police-induced deaths in the penal system at all levels.
The number 5,000 is pure cobwebs. The closest thing I’ve ever found to support 500 a year was a report for the FBI done in 1998, which was voluntary reporting and not even close to comprehensive. It claimed an average of 373 from 1976-1998. I have not arrived at a number, but on a random date I selected from the Fatal Encounters database, April 27, 2013, there were 7 people killed by police. If April 27 was an average day, then that’s 2,555, but it was a Saturday, so that number is probably high. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 3 or 4 a day average, but without the complete database, that’s pure conjecture. Killed by Police on Facebook found 543 incidents between Jan. 1 and July 2 this year, which would be 1,086 for the year. Seems like the truth is somewhere in between. I don’t think non-reporting of incidents is the problem.[Editor’s note: There is evidence of an even larger number not included the statistical black hole that is the American penal system.}
I think the bigger problem is that the numbers aren’t collected nationally, so we have no idea of how one city relates to another. Often killings are reported, but in some cities, like Philadelphia, police don’t even release the names of people killed and journalists don’t usually follow up, so there is no way to make valid comparisons or even to know if one death or another was reported. I agree that deaths in prison and jail are hugely under-reported, but that’s a somewhat different issue than the one I’m looking at. I intentionally had to limit my focus. I actually believe those deaths are probably more available and probably more centralized, although not having tried to find the information, I can’t say for sure. I’ll bet making prisons privately run businesses has made that information harder to get.
Why are so few cops punished for wrongdoing? Does this help establish a license to kill among the police?
They’re not punished because by law, they have not committed a crime. The courts have sided with law enforcement on this consistently, even in wildly unbelievable situations. I’ll bet not one in a hundred fatal encounters is found questionable. And I’ll double down that in the few times they do go to a jury, the officer is exonerated in three-quarters of the cases. Again, this is the law. I wouldn’t say it’s a license to kill, but I would say it makes police less reticent to pull their guns. And that’s exactly the intention of the courts. Judges, it should be pointed out, are often ex-prosecutors. Also, it’s often the district attorney, generally a prosecutor, who determines whether a killing is justified. Often there is no citizen oversight of these “hearings,” and media rarely publish the results. In one example here in Reno, the DA found a killing justified and in fact, praised the officers involved. Only problem was, the person was only wounded, and anyone who read the reports would have known that.
Do American police behave like an occupying army? Is this the standing army the Founding Lawyers warned us about?
I truly do not know the answer to these questions. I do find it interesting that we call non-law enforcement people “civilians.”
Please address any additional comments you may wish to add to the discussion.
People want to zero in on horrendous exceptions and make them the rule. We can see different agencies with similar training get vastly different outcomes post-academy graduation. That means the individual agencies have different training, protocols and cultures. The vast, vast majority of police are not bad people. If Americans focus on seeing what protocols in what jurisdictions get the best results, we can reform law enforcement policies and procedures, and then start proactively looking for anomalous behaviors by individual officers. But until we have the numbers, the basis for comparisons, it forces people to lump all cops together and to make judgments of them based on the worst of them, which is exactly how police make judgments when they interact with the public. The current system, particularly in urban environments, can create an antagonistic relationship between police and the public, but it doesn’t have to be that way.