For nearly two months, protesters around the world filled the streets of the city, marched on government buildings, and demanded justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and Andres Guardado – all who died in law enforcement encounters.
But for every high-profile police-related murder, there have been countless others in which the names and faces of the victims never made national headlines. Much of what we know about these deaths comes from the work of a man.
D. Brian Burghart, a former reporter and publisher, has done what federal agencies haven̵
By July 10, Fatal Encounters listed more than 28,400 deaths as of January 1, 2000. The entries include both headlines and thousands of less known deaths.
Burghart uses so-called open source information from news and public records to record every reported murder. Users can search by name, age, race, gender, date, city, etc. to find people who have died in interactions with the police.
On his website, Burghart modestly calls Fatal Encounters a “step towards creating an impartial, comprehensive and searchable national database”. Observers were far more praiseworthy. A critical review of its work in 2019 by the Journal of Open Health Data called it the “largest collection of PRDs [Police Related Deaths] in the United States and remains the most likely source of historical trend comparisons and analysis of the causes of PRDs at the police level. “Other databases exist, including The Counted by The Guardian and the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post Fatal Force project, but don’t go back to 2000.
In the years since Burghart launched the project, national news organizations have recognized the import of this type of large database to educate the public and promote transparency between law enforcement agencies and civilians.
For Burghart it started with a death. “It started when the government said to me,” No, “he said.” I am a journalist. You don’t tell me ‘no’. “
In 2012, Burghart drove past a scene that was “just chaos”. Everything about what he saw – the strong police presence and the flashing lights – instinctively told Burghart, a trained investigative journalist, that someone had had a fatal encounter with law enforcement officials.
Burghart went home, turned on his police scanner, and waited. Police had stopped and then shot a man named Jace Herndon who was driving a stolen car.
Burghart scanned local news. He wanted to know how many other people in his area had died interacting with the police. But this information was lacking in every story.
That bothered him. A few months later, an 18-year-old student, Gil Collar, was killed by police from the University of South Alabama campus. Again Burghart wondered how often this happens.
“The earliest I found out was that nobody knew,” he said.
At that time, Burghart was the publisher and editor of The Reno News & Review in Nevada, a free weekly alternative based in “the world’s largest small town”. As he became increasingly fascinated by the lack of information about Collar and Herndon’s death, Burghart channeled his interest in data to find out how many people die each year from law enforcement interactions.
He started with the official counts. “I always feel that the numbers are the truth,” he said.
His original plan was to get the mailing addresses of all of the country’s law enforcement agencies – he estimates there were approximately 16,000 at the time – who participated in the Department of Justice’s annual Uniform Crime Report, the largest collection of crime data in the United States
He then intended to send requests for public records to each of these agencies. However, he knew that not all agencies are required to participate. There is no national mandate to report local crime statistics to the federal government.
Burghart encountered a roadblock at the FBI, notifying him that the agency had not kept a list of all the law enforcement agencies in the country that contributed to the Uniform Crime Report. Unimpressed, he submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for new information and was finally able to submit around 2,500 additional requests to various agencies.
“I think I’ve traveled across the states of Texas and Nevada,” he said, laughing at the memory. “I still have FOIAs from that time.”
Some agencies did not answer his questions, while others asked tens of thousands of dollars to pay for copies. Finally, he received data in the form of two CDs filled with tables saved as JPEGs. However, images cannot be searched – every photo had to be combed manually – a tedious process. As he described it almost a decade later, he felt “the FBI has messed with me”.
Burghart is still dismayed at how difficult it was to find exact numbers of police killings.
“It offended me at various levels,” he said. To rank him the most was the peculiarity of his own singularity: “Why am I the type who finds out?”
About 4 years ago, Burghart quit his job to focus exclusively on fatal encounters. During this time, he was forced to count on Americans, lawmakers, and even law enforcement agencies not to have a complete picture of what the police are doing in this case because the federal government does not systematically track every police murder in the United States like this.
“Without a doubt, it’s a failure,” said Burghart. “It enables people who don’t want to know.”
Over the years, as more and more people have been killed by law enforcement agencies and video footage of these incidents has emerged, Burghart’s decision to aggregate the information felt almost predictive. Sociologists and criminologists from across the country are now using data from Fatal Encounters to advance their research.
Last month, Harvard researchers used his data to publish a study that recorded fatal police violence in US cities from 2013 to 2017. They found that police in Chicago and the West killed suburbs black and white six times more often than whites.
“Brian’s record is incredible, enormous, and an enormous effort for a journalist,” said Brian Finch, professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California.
Finch is one of several researchers who have looked through Burghart’s numbers to uncover patterns in deadly interactions with law enforcement agencies.
In a 2018 USC study using Fatal Encounters, Finch found that “police killings account for between 5 and 12 percent of all homicides in the country in a given year.” He also found that the New York City Police Department had the lowest police homicide rate compared to the city’s homicide rate, while the Los Angeles and Houston Police Department was among the highest homicide rates among the police. Finch concluded that police killings have actually increased over time as the number of violent crimes and murders has decreased.
Without Burghart’s work, it would have been almost impossible to reach these conclusions, Finch said.
“It is outrageous to work like Brian,” he said, adding that Burghart does not rely on programs or algorithms. Instead, he manually enters each field.
Burghart is now working with a team of experts in artificial intelligence to develop new ways of processing information. He is unwilling to release details of the project, but said that the work he did as a private individual should be better completed at the federal level.
And yet, the attention that Fatal Encounters receives is episodic, according to Burghart.
“It goes away for a while until something so painful happens again to light the flame,” he said.
This flame was recently triggered by the death of George Floyd when he was in custody by the Minneapolis police in May. His murder inspired both lawmakers and activists to rethink criminal justice reform efforts.
Burghart is unsure whether the national outcry will continue this time, but warns that a lack of transparency within law enforcement agencies could lead to continued unrest.
“The number of people killed by the police is microscopic,” he said compared to the general population. “But these deaths are so important to the families of the people who were killed because they symbolize systematic racism.”
Burghart, a self-confessed “figure man” with a thirst for adventure, was preparing for a four-legged trip from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to Alabama when he spoke to NBC News.
The same curiosity that forced Burghart to travel also inspired him to start a mammoth venture, like putting together data worth two decades in a table that is available to any journalist, researcher, and interested individual.
Some cases never leave him. He still thinks of the death of Daniel Shaver, an Arizona man who was shot by the police after crawling on the floor of a mesa hotel and sobbing for his life, and of Kelly Thomas, a California man who had lived on the street before a fatal encounter encountered the Fullerton police.
“Even when I’m done with it, it will be part of me forever,” said Burghart.