Influential Washington Post Database on Police Killings Wins Pulitzer

Project helped push for federal reform to get more accurate info.


Credit: Photographerlondon | Dreamstime.com

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced this afternoon. While it's likely that the musical Hamilton's drama win is probably going to get the bulk of media attention, take note of an important win for The Washington Post in its effort to track fatal shootings by police. The database and the reporting that went along with the research won the award for national reporting.

Sometimes Pulitzer Prizes may seem like very media-centric self-congratulatory awards for stories that appeal to the journalists' idea of what journalism should be (grandiose, exhaustive productions) rather than reporting that actually has significant public impact. That's not the case in The Washington's Post's project on deadly police encounters. Not only did it help draw attention to the significant gap in the accuracy of important data about police encounters, their push (along with a similar database by The Guardian) is actually leading to reform.

Even before The Washington Post embarked on this project, anybody who had an interest in observing national police behavior trends knew there was a big flaw in the data. The FBI tracks all sorts of crime information from law enforcement agencies around the country to keep track of trends in serious crime statistics. But the FBI doesn't have a remotely accurate system of tracking whenever police officers have a deadly encounter with citizens or suspected criminals. The FBI has a voluntary program of reporting police encounters that turn deadly, and many law enforcement agencies do not participate. As a result, federal statistics about police homicides are wildly off, far too low, and the system is not useful in helping tease out any trends that might be useful in figuring out ways to reduce the number of people that the police kill each year.

The Post's project independently counted every fatal police shooting in the United States in 2015 (there were 990 of them) and attempted to look for trends. Here's how The Washington Post described the fruits of their project when reporting their win today:

Spurred by [Staff Writer Wesley] Lowery's proposal, the project grew into one of the largest in the newsroom's history, said Cameron Barr, The Post's managing editor for news. It eventually involved some 70 journalists from the paper's national, investigative, metro, video, photo and graphics departments.

The police-shootings database — painstakingly assembled by researchers Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins from official and unofficial sources — included more than a dozen details about each incident, including the age and race of the person killed, whether and how the person was armed, and the circumstances that led to the encounter with police. It soon yielded new insights into the use of deadly force by the nation's police officers.

The data showed, for example, that about one-quarter of those fatally shot had a history of mental illness; that most of those killed were white men (although unarmed African Americans were at vastly higher risk of being shot after routine traffic stops than any other group); and that 55 officers involved in fatal shootings in 2015 had previously been involved in a deadly incident while on duty.

Another important finding: The vast majority (74 percent) of people shot and killed by police were armed with guns or were killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making direct threats. This finding countered the impression left by several high-profile fatalities that police routinely use excessive force.

After seeing the information The Washington Post was carefully gathering, the FBI decided that it needed to revamp and expand its own reporting system and used the Post's system as a springboard. Eventually, we may get better, more accurate information about deadly police encounters. Program participation will still be voluntary (unless Congress mandates data-gathering) but may end up being more a more inclusive and accurate tool if all goes well.

Read about the other Pulitzer Prize-winners here

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    1. The Post’s project independently counted every fatal police shooting in the United States in 2015 (there were 990 of them) and attempt to look for trends.
      Editing seems less and less to be evident in Reason posts. Not a good sign.

      1. It’s a blog. It’s supposed to be quicker and dirtier than conventional articles. That’s a standard you see everywhere on the internet.

        Besides, pristine content would deny sad friendless pedants like Winston the only approximation of pleasure that he ever experiences in pointing it out.

        1. Winston has friends! Whenever his mom has company they’re all nice to him!

  2. Another important finding: The vast majority (74 percent) of people shot and killed by police were armed with guns or were killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making direct threats.

    Is this guns-guns or gun-shaped-objects, which run the gamut from toy guns to cups of seltzer water?

    1. Is three outta four a vast majority? It’s only one over half. I guess you could argue that given a big enough group 75% would be vast, but the same could be said for 51%.

      1. 74% is a C. That’s the equivalent of an A for anyone who joins the police force.

      2. The quote from the article says 990 incidents in 2015, so 732ish is pretty vast?

        1. That’s my point, is 732ish a vast majority if there were 1463 incidents? I’m thinking you need at least a 5 to 1 ratio to qualify as vast. I have no math to back this up only a strong gut feeling that I am right, just like a vast majority of my arguments.

          1. I think an ice-cold Sriracha colonic will take care of that strong gut feeling.

      3. “One over half”

        Everything between 50% and 100% is “one over half” if you make your fraction the right way.

        Typically, anything over 66%, or 2/3 is seen as a large majority. Still, the vagueness of that category is suspect as hell.

        1. Sure but “vast” is magnitudes bigger than “large”, of that I am 100% certain.

          1. I’m sure we can all agree that if it’s not technically a vast majority it’s at least half-vast.

    2. “or were killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making direct threats.”

      That’s the part of the sentence that looks suspicious to me. What is the police’s definition of “attack” and “direct threat”??

      1. It’s boilerplate the cops put down on reports to justify their actions. Every single DUI suspect has slurred speech and their eyes are red and bloody. Every. Single. One. And there is similar boilerplate for when cops kill people. It’s just words. Nothing else.

        1. “Every single DUI suspect has slurred speech and their eyes are red and bloody.”

          Objection!! My client is mute!!

      2. I’m guessing basically any time the cop can utter the magical incantation “I felt threatened.”

        1. No, no, no, no, no, NO!

          It’s “I feared for my life”!

          An FYI: saying to a police officer who is threatening to do something illegal to you like drag you out of your home for failing to comply with an illegal order “You do that and I will fear for my life” is the same as saying “You do that and I will kill you” without using words that give them an excuse to say they feared for their lives when they write a report after killing you.

          1. So wait, after they kill you do they write in the report that you said you feared for your life, or do they just write that they feared for their life?

            1. do they write in the report that you said you feared for your life

              Why would they do that? Your life would have to matter to them, first…

      3. after attacking police officers

        As we have seen here innumerable times, cops love to jump in front of moving cars and mag dump through the windshield or otherwise create a confrontation.

        If the Post is basing this on press reports, well, those usually parrot the cops boilerplate horseshit, and leave it at that. So I’m going to say they seriously overestimate the number of truly justifiable shootings.

    3. So, let’s just ignore definitions of vast majority for a second and flip the stat around. 26% of people shot and killed by police weren’t armed with guns and didn’t attack police officers or civilians or make direct threats. How fucked up is that?

      So, you’re saying that *at least* a quarter of the fatal shootings by police are very questionable? As some have mentioned, the “attack” on police officers is highly subjective. The threat part is also subjective (I doubt that saying, “i’m gonna kick your ass, pig” warrants a death sentence). So, it’s probably even higher.

      But ignore that. Seriously, a quarter of the fatal shootings are sketchy?!?!? I’m pretty damn skeptical, but I kind of assumed that an actual “vast majority” (90+%) would’ve been clearly justified and that things would just seem worse than reality due to reading Reason and Balko. Instead, it’s actually worse than I would have thought.

  3. Will this prize spur other outlets to drop the deference given to police spokesmen and their narratives?

    1. Yes?…

  4. The vast majority (74 percent) of people shot and killed by police were armed with guns or were killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making direct threats.

    How many of those incidents had witnesses or some sort of audio or video to confirm the officer’s story? Because I, as someone who has yet to read a police report of anything I witnessed that wasn’t a work of fiction, do not believe anything written or said by a police officer unless there is other evidence to confirm it.

  5. killed after … making direct threats

    “Direct threats”? Are those like “furtive movements”?

    1. “Direct threats” are words that police officers write down to justify their actions because those words give them legal justification for lethal force. Whether or not those words accurately describe the events that transpired is something else entirely.

    1. *handed out, not won. grumble grumble EDIT button grumble

  6. only 26% are panic fire? yes, this is much less than I thought.

    1. No, only 26% are panic fire situations where the cop didn’t remember to write down that the suspect was “making direct threats”.

  7. “Another important finding: The vast majority (74 percent) of people shot and killed by police were armed with guns or were killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making direct threats. ”

    So there were only 260 cases where police shot and killed people that were not armed with guns and had not attacked police officers or civilians and had not made direct threats.

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  9. I would like to see a study that compared the contents of police reports to the contents of witness videos taken without the officer’s prior knowledge.

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