Interview: Looking At Real Data Involving Police-Related Deaths

Jul 11, 2016

A traditional handgun sits on a display table.
Credit Alexa Ard

Last week's officer-involved shootings of two black men, Louisiana resident Alton Sterling and Minnesota resident Philando Castile, as well as the shooting deaths of five Dallas officers have sparked national safety concerns.

Following those events, our Reno Public Radio reporter, Marcus Lavergne, sat down with expert Brian Burghart, the president of Fatal Encounters, a database that's been collecting information on police involved-deaths since the year 2000...to discuss the project and the future of law enforcement in America.

Burghart's team has found that since the turn of the century, there have been more than 14,000 incidents of officer-involved killings. That being said, a relatively small portion of the deaths are considered what Burghart calls "questionable."

"It's like the vast, vast majority of  these officer involved homicides are legally justifiable," Burghart said. "Any reasonable person would say that officer was defending himself or defending innocent people or defending a partner and it's obvious as the nose on your face." 

It's that small percentage of questionable deaths that play a large part in current movements like Black Lives Matter, which is dedicated to putting an end to police brutality, especially toward black men. 

Burghart's found that African-American youths are overrepresented in the database, but according to analysts,  this doesn't exactly signify obvious discrimination between officers and civilians. That being said, more information is needed to figure out why Black lives are taken at such a high rate and what can be done to lower the number of fatal incidents.  

"[Analysts] also found that it's not necessarily white-on-Black, but it's blue-on-Black because, I don't know, police culture or something." Burghart said. " I think the true use of this database will come at the end of it when we've got 100-percent collection of every officer-involved death since January 1, 2000."

Burghart says the U.S. Department of Justice puts officer lives at risk by not collecting data like this. According to him, the info could help police make rational decisions about policing, policy and training that could potentially save their lives and those of civilians more often. 

For more on Fatal Encounters, head to http://www.fatalencounters.org/