Brian Burghart figured that he was either going crazy or he was terrible at Google.
It was May 2012, and he’d just driven by a row of police cars parked on the side of a road in Reno, Nevada, where he works as a publisher of a weekly newspaper. Turns out police had killed the driver of a stolen car.
When Burghart got home, he went online and read a few news stories about the shooting and was surprised that none of them mentioned how often police kill people in Reno or the surrounding county.
A few months later, police shot and killed a teenager named Gil Collar at the University of South Alabama. Collar had been walking around campus grounds naked and acting erratically when a campus officer shot him in the chest.
But in reading about the case, Burghart couldn’t find any stories that answered what he felt was a straightforward question: How many people are killed by police each year in the United States?
Burghart, 53, checked the Department of Justice website. He checked the website of the FBI. He looked at websites for different advocacy groups and everywhere else he could think of. He couldn’t find an answer.
“I thought I was wrong,” Burghart told Mashable. “I thought that when I couldn’t find it, it was something I was doing.”
But Burghart wasn’t wrong.
While President Barack Obama signed a law in December that seems an attempt to gather the data, previous federal efforts have been unsuccessful.
A law requiring the Department of Justice to publish information on police use of force was passed in 1994. Essentially it’s been ignored ever since.
The FBI tracks the number of police officers killed in the line of duty as well as “justifiable homicides” committed by police. (The FBI defines justifiable homicides as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.”) A few activist groups against police brutality keep records on citizens killed by police that are far from comprehensive. Recently, Gawker started a crowdsourced tally of people of color killed by law enforcement in the U.S.
But there is no complete national record of how many people are killed by police every year.
“It’s not surprising that we don’t have a single source that we can go to,” Delores Jones-Brown, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Mashable. “There are so many people who are interested in not having a rigorous examination of this issue.
This whole notion of plausible deniability becomes really important.”
Burghart, who co-publishes a weekly newspaper called the Reno News and Review, thought the lack of information was odd. After all, the government collects all kinds of data — where people live, how much money they make, what ethnicity they are — but it seemed strange at best and insidious at worst that the number of people killed by police nationwide was not being published.
He figured compiling the data wouldn’t be too hard. He’d just file a Freedom of Information Act request with attorneys general in all 50 states, asking for the number of people killed by police over the past several years. Then he’d sift through the information, put it online, and be done with it.
That was at the start of 2013. By April, the FBI still hadn’t even sent him addresses for the departments that might keep the data.
So Burghart decided he’d crowdsource his project, which he dubbed Fatal Encounters.
A few people volunteered to help. A grad student from California State University in Fullerton started doing data entry. Others helped here and there, feeding him reports or donating cash to help pay for public records.
When a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, it sparked nationwide protests and ignited a debate about police brutality against minorities.
“Everyone in the United States suddenly became aware that the United States wasn’t collecting this information,” Burghart said. “Things got kind of crazy from that point on.”
Around 100,000 viewers visited the Fatal Encounters site in the two days after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Brown, he said. Media requests also poured in and Burghart found himself on national TV, talking about the issue.
The exposure helped attract even more volunteers. Burghart now has a small army of more than 1,000 people from around the world who feed him data, fact-check information, create data visualizations and help build the database.
Burghart for his part dedicates most of his free time to fact-checking data entries on Fatal Encounters. He fits that in on weekends and weeknights when he’s not at the newspaper office or in class at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he’s studying for a master’s degree in journalism and another in English.
“He’s just a very hardworking, genuine, honest person,” Donica Mensing, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, told Mashable. “He doesn’t have an off-switch.”
And Burghart says he feeds off some of the work he does at Fatal Encounters.
“Obsessed — that’s the right word,” Burghart said. “It’s kind of like a ‘like’ on Facebook. When you find a piece of information on one of these records…you get a little charge.”
Burghart says his data shows that the number of “justifiable homicides” published by the FBI are far lower than the total number of people killed by police.
Burghart hopes to have “completed” data for every state sometime late next year, and he wants to keep tallying police killings at least until the first federal report. That way he can check whether the government’s data matches his own.
Once the data base is complete, Burghart looks forward to some free time. A keen gardener, he wants to do another kind of digging.