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.