“What’s D. Brian Burghart doing now?” is a question we RN&R staffers hear a lot. The long-time editor of the RN&R left the company two years ago to focus on Fatal Encounters, the database of people killed by law enforcement that he started partly to accompany an award-winning series of stories in the paper.
What are you doing now?
Well, I’m doing a combination of things. I’m preparing for a trip on the Pan-American Highway, and I’m working for [the University of Southern California] as a researcher, basically furthering the work of Fatal Encounters.
Let’s start with USC.
I was contacted by [Brian Finch at USC Dornsife] who … had a couple of grants in mind—NIH, which is the National Institute of Health, and NSF, National Science Foundation, I think. So, he got me on board, primarily because I know the data so well, and we submitted—I don’t know how many times. … Basically, the way these giant grants work is you go to one committee that just decides if your grant is worth looking at by the second committee. And we were getting in the high 80s and 90s, which sometimes would be enough to get you funded, but they kept sending it back, wanting us to do more stuff or modify the grant application, so finally this last time—last year in July, I think, they gave us 100 percent. And [Finch], who submitted the grant, had never seen a 100 percent, and that’s what he does for a living. … Due to the change in administration, and the difficulty in getting a budget passed, we were sort of put off. We expected to have the money in September, and we didn’t get it ’til January. And I’ve been working with them since January 7. … Part of it is just continuing my work, compiling, keeping it up to date on a weekly basis. But then they have specialized research that I spend the rest of my time doing. For example, coding all the police departments in the United States onto our data, which is really kind of boring, to be honest. But each agency in the United States has its own number, and they’ve got a bunch of different ways to define them. We’re using two—so I’ve got to go through 18,000 agencies, and make sure they’re all consistent with our data and correct, and supply USC with the data. That’s what I’m doing now. … It’s a four-year project, and the first three years, they own all the work I do outside of Fatal Encounters. But the fourth year, it all becomes completely public. … The first academic paper—we’ve been passing it around among the team. This is a pretty high-powered team, actually. It’s some of the nation’s best-known researchers involved in this—best-known police violence researchers, like David Klinger from the University of Missouri [St. Louis].
Are you still keeping Fatal Encounters?
Yeah. The stuff that I did—the 17 data points that I collected on—that’s still 100 percent open-source. Everybody gets to use it.
And the Pan-American trip?
All my life I’ve tried to work my way to get to the point where I could do my job from anywhere. … I’m working remotely for USC, so that means I can work from anywhere—anywhere there’s an internet connection, as long as I can put in the hours. And that’s what I want to do. The Pan-American Highway runs from the north end of Alaska all the way down to … Patagonia. … That’s about 19,000 miles. My intention is to do that trip, and I’ll probably be leaving in about a month. I bought this thing called an Astro Tiger, which is basically a converted Astro van from 1987. … I plan on doing a travel blog [www.astrotigertales.com], so people will be able to keep up with me, and they’ll know if I disappear.