Close encounters of the lethal kind

When an enterprise gets to the end of a groundbreaking project like our year-long Fatal Encounters series, people invariably ask what, if anything, was learned. The problem with that sort of summary response is that there’s no easy way to put all the lessons into a few words, and by doing so, the breadth of the project is almost always made to seem smaller or larger than it actually was.

One thing Fatal Encounters has proven is the government will no longer be solely in charge of policing itself with regard to public behavior it would rather keep localized. Journalists, including so-called “citizen” journalists, now have a role. In other words, the public now has a role. For many years, the federal government said it kept track of how many people were affected by officer-involved violence. It claimed around 400 incidents a year., with its crowdsourced searchable and comparable links to media reports, has disabled that lie, and shows fatalities are closer to triple that number.

Another thing journalism can learn from Fatal Encounters is its own collusion in disabling the public’s access to information related to police violence. Demographic information about the dead and the officers involved is rarely reported. Whether a killing was justified and who investigated are too often given no scrutiny at all, crippling likely reform when the government’s actions are examined, and giving law enforcement a pass on the most weighty act of policing there is, killing a person.

This year, race became the driving engine of the topic of officer-involved homicides across the country. Data from Fatal Encounters both supported the argument that African-Americans and other minority groups are killed at an outsized rate to their numbers in the population but also tempered the claim that a majority of people killed by police are minorities. As so often happens, the truth was in the middle, and while the Fatal Encounters data is not conclusive, the numbers get more refined and comprehensive every week. Too many African-Americans are killed, but it’s not just black people who are killed in numbers beyond their ratio in society.

The mentally ill, the impoverished and veterans—anecdotally, so far—seem to have an outsized representation in the numbers of people killed by police. This data too is young, but it’s documenting the relationships that will be further examined by academic and support groups. While we’re counting, it must also be said that Fatal Encounters shows that the vast majority of officer-involved homicides are above reproach. Indeed, it points out the dangers inherent in the job of policing in a locked and loaded culture like ours.

The fundamental premise of this project—better tracking of the numbers behind the stories will point out both successful and failed policies—was also borne out. But that discovery went beyond the issue of whether law enforcement should change policies and training to get better outcomes. It went into the whole question of whether the public has rights to be provided with information about police and policing. There are many areas in this country where law enforcement arrogantly refuses to follow state public records laws, considering itself above the law and beyond concepts of transparency and accountability.

Americans have been given a powerful new tool to watch and control a government that all-too-often oversteps its authority. Our project, Fatal Encounters, is an early step toward an America whose citizens are able to keep as close an eye on the government as the government keeps on them.