Brian Burghart, former editor of this newspaper, departed in March 2016 to work full time on the website he founded, Fatal Encounters, which collects data on people killed in encounters with police. In addition to continuing as executive director of that project, he now also does specialized research at the University of Southern California. We reached him in Mexico, where he was working on spreadsheets.
You’re the first one I’ve known who actually left the country after Trump took office.
That wasn’t why I did it. I’m down here to work on some stuff that I couldn’t do on the cyber internet. So I just grabbed a place with broadband for probably six months. … We just crossed 26,000 records. … All last year I was able to travel the United States—Reno to Salem, Massachusetts, to Niagara Falls, down to Birmingham, Alabama, back to Reno, back to the Pacific Coast, down here to Mexico. And I was able to work on the phone network the whole time. But what I’m doing right now is incorporating the National Transportation Safety Board chase data. It requires me to have more than one, often three, of these giant spreadsheets open at the same time and the cell network just can’t handle the upload. [I’m] incorporating their chase data into the main data set. … These are tens of thousands of rows and fifty columns. … [Mexico] is just where I landed. I wanted to come down here and study some Spanish. So I take two classes a week, and I wanted to spend some time on the beach, basically. I’m finally living the perfect life, Dennis.
How has Fatal Encounters evolved since you left here?
Well, it hasn’t, really. I mean, all it’s done is grown. We kind of got a process by which we track the deaths that happen on a weekly basis, and we’re constantly kind of looking for more historic deaths earlier toward the 2000s. Anytime a data set opens up that may contain deaths that we missed, we incorporate them. A lot of these chase deaths never were recorded in the media, which is basically our method, is we scour the news media first for these things.
Did you say chase deaths?
Yes, pursuit—when the cops are chasing somebody, and somebody ends up dead.
I have volunteers, two of them that are doing sort of specialized research now. One guy is working on, was the person armed? How were they armed? And … what was the physical movement that they did? And another person [is] searching for photographs, because that’s how Fatal Encounters does most of the race data. … If it’s included in the police reports that we get, then we’ll include it from that, but our largest category is still “race unknown.”
Why did no one did this before?
You couldn’t have done it. The internet had to develop to a certain level. Prior to, say, 2007, newspapers and news organizations routinely deleted their older stories. … But with the advent of cloud computing, memory came basically free.
But before computers existed, people kept track of the police officers who had been killed.
Right. Yes. Well, actually, there are so few it’s just—it’s a larger news footprint when a police officer is killed. But that’s not the reason. The reason that the data was not adequately collected is because there wasn’t the will to do it, on a political level.
Is there satisfaction in the work?
You know, not really. There’s something or I would just stop doing it. It’s still mostly that I think the work just needs to be done, and if nobody else is going to do it, I’m going to do it.