We’re Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, reporters for The Guardian covering policing and social justice.

A couple months ago, we launched a project called The Counted (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database) to chronicle every person killed by police in the US in 2015 – with the internet’s help. Since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO nearly a year ago— it’s become abundantly clear that the data kept by the federal government on police killings is inadequate. This project is intended to help fill some of that void, and give people a transparent and comprehensive database for looking at the issue of fatal police violence.

The Counted has just reached its halfway point. By our count the number of people killed by police in the US this has reached 545 as of June 29, 2015 and is on track to hit 1,100 by year’s end. Here’s some of what we’ve learned so far: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/01/us-police-killings-this-year-black-americans

You can read some more of our work for The Counted here: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killings

And if you want to help us keep count, send tips about police killings in 2015 to http://www.theguardian.com/thecounted/tips, follow on Twitter @TheCounted, or join the Facebook community www.facebook.com/TheCounted.

We are here to answer your questions about policing and police killings in America, social justice and The Counted project. Ask away.

UPDATE at 11.32am: Thank you so much for all your questions. We really enjoyed discussing this with you. This is all the time we have at the moment but we will try to return later today to tackle some more of your questions.

UPDATE 2 at 11.43: OK, there are actually more questions piling up, so we are jumping back on in shifts to continue the discussion. Keep the questions coming.

UPDATE 3 at 1.41pm We have to wrap up now. Thanks again for all your questions and comments.

Comments: 2038 • Responses: 52  • Date: 

altermundial372 karma

  1. How exactly do you define a police killing? For example, would you count a suspect being accidentally killed in a car chase?

  2. Have you seen any interest from government agencies like the Bureau of Justice Statistics in either collaborating with you or learning from your methodology?

  3. What has the biggest challenge been in doing research for The Counted?

guardianjamiles534 karma

For our database we have defined a “police killing” as any incident where the actions of a sworn police officer can be reasonably be understood to have been the cause, or a primary cause of a person’s death. This means that someone struck with a vehicle in an accident with a police cruiser would be counted. We would not count, for example, someone who was running from police and was struck by a civilian vehicle and killed.

I remind people as often as I can, that we are “counting” without making a value judgement. We don’t include accidents because we are trying to report big numbers, or because trying to imply some wrongdoing-- but so that we have complete information, and that at the end of the year we can say X number of people were killed by law enforcement this way or that way. If-- and I stress this is entirely hypothetical-- we found some large percentage of police vehicles that hit civilians and killed them were speeding or driving without sirens or something like that-- it would be a useful uncovery.

The BJS used to keep this information, as a matter of fact, but stopped counting at some point when it became clear just how profoundly the reports were undercounting. The FBI and the CDC also keep some numbers tied to law-enforcement related deaths, but none are comprehensive enough to be particularly useful. But no, as of yet, no federal agency has reached out for a collaboration.

The biggest challenge is simply the scale of the project and the fact that we have to piece this puzzle together from states and local jurisdictions with wildly different protocols on what information they release and how.

WittyViking51 karma


guardianjon59 karma

What do you mean by withdrawals? We'd certainly like to know more about what happened. Do email me – first dot last at theguardian dot com – if you'd like.

save_the_pigs285 karma

Have you encountered any police who support your cause? If so what did they say/do?

guardianjon423 karma

Jim Bueermann, the head of the Police Foundation and a former police chief, supports better collection of data on these incidents. He and I were among the guests on KCRW’s To The Point last month, and his answers are well worth listening to: http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/to-the-point/documenting-officer-involved-shootings

StarfishPrime10151 karma

Thoughts on the WashPost's similar investigation?


jookyspooky23 karma

I thought the same thing. Will they work together or coordinate in any way with the Washington Post? Are they using the same metrics?

guardianjon70 karma

We actually aren't working together on this but we had similar ideas. One difference is that the Post has decided to count fatal shootings specifically whereas we have looked at other causes. The Post has published details on whether the person killed had mental health problems. We have been trying to collect similar data but aren't satisfied with how complete it is yet.

SAE18564 karma

After a quick read through 30-40 of those... pretty much what i expected. Don't fight or point guns/replica guns at police and you won't get shot...

guardianjon8 karma

We're really glad you looked through that many entries. We want the project to shed light on all the incidents so that people can consider the issue in the round.

bmd004139 karma

Where do you get your information that someone has been killed by the police? How do you know it is accurate?

guardianjon181 karma

It comes from a mixture of sources. Since we launched the project on 1 June, the biggest source of information has been readers sending us messages via email or the submission form on our site –www.theguardian.com/thecounted/tips – with links to local media reports about deaths in their area. Several family members of people who were killed have been in contact to provide information about what happened to their relatives.

Our reporters then verify this information via police officials and public records, and create a new entry in our database if appropriate.

We also monitor social media for mentions by residents and local reporters about fatalities involving police. People tend to use similar phrases when talking about them. Again, once we have these tips we will pursue confirmation through traditional routes.

Some cases have been more difficult to report than others. We identified five people who had never been publicly named by local authorities and media http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/03/counted-police-killing-victims-unnamed-texas-california Their details came from public records requests and inquiries to coroners and police departments.

Before launching we were aided greatly by the work of crowd-sourced databases such as KilledByPolice.net. We have different criteria, and our database contains a different total and omits some cases counted by KBP. But they were an invaluable pointer towards cases that had already happened when we started counting.

We’ve written an explanation of where our information comes from here: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/about-the-counted

Egalitaristen44 karma

Did you know that there are several Wikipedia articles that try to do what you are doing? Maybe it can help you in some way :)


guardianjon71 karma

We did see the Wikipedia page, which is a useful pointer to some cases. It isn't as comprehensive as other crowd-sourced projects such as KilledByPolice.net (and, we hope, our own.)

TheFinalDeception107 karma

How often do you think those killings were necessary?

guardianjon406 karma

We aren’t offering any judgment on whether these actions were necessary or unnecessary. The objective is to record every fatal incident and explain what happened, so that people (and police, and policymakers) can better appreciate the scale of what is happening. Because there is no comprehensive government database, this seems impossible at present.

However if you look through the database you will see that as well as questionable incidents involving unarmed people, there are many in which the person killed was armed and acting violently towards officers in their final moments. We are going to include all of them for your consideration.

lula2488103 karma

If news broke out that a certain celebrity was living a second life as a Batman-esque vigilante of justice by night and was getting away with it for years, who would surprise you the least?

guardianjon143 karma

John Legend. He seems like a really good guy.

sarcastroll50 karma

You seem to have an agenda of saying there are too many police shootings. The ticker on your page clearly demonstrates that.

Does it bother you that when readers actually read the descriptions of the cases they all sound very very reasonable?

"LaPort was fatally shot after allegedly firing into the air and levelling a shotgun at officers during an encounter at a home near Great Sacandaga Lake."

" Crittenden fled into a house and reportedly took refuge in an attic. When he emerged, he allegedly opened fire on an officer who then returned fire."

"Vanderburgh allegedly pointed a rifle at deputies from the window of a lakeside house they were surrounding after an hour-long standoff."

Damn scary to be a cop it seems! I can see why the other ones happen. Like "No firearm was found. Shell casings found on the floor indicated the officers fired 19 times."

guardianjon51 karma

Our agenda is: better information.

It doesn't bother us that people might have the reaction you mentioned; quite the opposite. We want people to be informed enough to understand what happens in these incidents. As you point out, many people were acting violently in their final moments and this has to be taken into account in debates on whether there could be fewer fatal shootings by police, or whether officers are responding appropriately.

pieala45 karma

It would be interesting to learn what types of data you are collecting, and how you might be able to categorize the results (such as # men, # women, # killings considered justified by cops, # killings considered justified by society (and how on earth do you measure that?), etc.

I have kept this post so I can come back when I have more time, and learn about the project. Good luck!

guardianjon79 karma

We are collecting a detailed series of data including those categories you mention and more: age, gender, race/ethnicity, precise location, whether the person was armed, and several others that we aren’t quite ready to publish yet. You can actually sort the data using these fields and download the data set from our site – http://www.theguardian.com/thecounted – to use and experiment with.

The smart people at FiveThirtyEight used the data and wrote a fascinating analysis on what the location data tells us about where people are killed by law enforcement: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/where-police-have-killed-americans-in-2015/

And Josh Begley, a brilliant data artist, used the location data and Google Earth to visualise the places where the incidents happened: https://joshbegley.com/seeing-police-violence/

In terms of justification, we are keeping track on the official investigations into the incidents and whether they were ruled justified or worthy of prosecution. You can see this in the “STATUS” section of each card in the database.

cablebent198821 karma

Will you be including police officers killed or injured by perpetrators to give perspective on the actual threat to an officer vs perceived threat???

Also, what about how many of those killed by police officers actually had a weapon on them???

guardianjon32 karma

We've taken care to include whether or not the person killed was armed as one of our key data points. You can sort the database with this field www.theguardian.com/thecounted.

We agree there should be more comprehensive data on police officers killed in the line of duty as well, but that's not our particular project at the moment. As my colleague Gary Younge wrote on this subject: "[T]he internet is a big place. Have at it. Any kind of counting that fills a void, enriches debate and focuses attention on an important issue should be supported." http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2015/jun/01/the-counted-keeping-count-police

ningrim20 karma

Why is there so much media focus on police killings given their relative infrequency in comparison to killings in general?

guardianjon41 karma

Homicides among the public are counted in detail by government authorities, but the federal government’s record of homicides by law enforcement officers is incomplete because the FBI makes reporting voluntary for local agencies. We want to correct this by constructing a more complete record.

One reason we think it’s worth shedding some light on these deaths in particular is that they were caused by public officials who are paid by American taxpayers. It seems reasonable that taxpayers should have solid data on which to base judgments about whether or not their law enforcement officers are acting appropriately.

fernbritton15 karma

Have you been able to identify any cases when police deaths are not being reported or are misreported?

guardianjon26 karma

We have so far identified at least six cases in which the people killed had never before been publicly named by local authorities or media. We wrote about the cases here – http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/03/counted-police-killing-victims-unnamed-texas-california . We got hold of the details from authorities through inquiries and public records requests

FarashaSilver15 karma

Do you have any plans to cross-reference the number of fatal police encounters with the total number of police encounters? I feel like this would give us a better picture of whether or not we have a racist police problem or a badly trained bully police problem. I want to say it's likely a combination of the two, but if the figures seem to point toward the latter, that's something that needs to be addressed just as much as the racism issue.

guardianjon19 karma

We would love for someone to download the data and cross-reference it with this and a lot of other things. At the moment we are concentrating on collecting the raw data on fatalities, which is taking up our time.

jrichocean15 karma

What has been the most common reason an officer justifies his/her reason for using leathal force?

guardianjon23 karma

The most common reason is that the officer feared for his or her safety and/or life because of the actions of the person killed.

ofcrazed13 karma

What are some conclusions you've reached so far analyzing this data?

guardianjon23 karma

Among other things, we have noticed that there are significant disparities in the ethnic/racial backgrounds of people who have been killed by police so far in 2015.

This morning we published a story detailing how, when you take into account census data to accurately reflect the US population, black people are being killed at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic/Latino people http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/01/us-police-killings-this-year-black-americans

Last month we also found that black people killed by police were twice as likely as white people killed by police to have been unarmed: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/black-americans-killed-by-police-analysis

egzuck7 karma

Will your report include data on whether or not the officers were property dealt with after the incident? (ex. If they were indicted or put on paid leave or anything like that)

guardianjon17 karma

Yes. On each “card” in our database representing a person who was killed – theguardian.com/thecounted – we have a section listing the status of the investigation into what happened. Some have been ruled justified, some have resulted in indictments and others remain under investigation.

dilellooo6 karma

In my opinion, the single most absurd thing that I see on the news about police killings is the use of "unarmed" to describe a suspect who was killed while struggling with police (Mike Brown is the perfect example). An unarmed person can become armed very quickly if they gain the upper hand in a physical struggle with law enforcement. I notice in the article linked above, you are compiling statistics on the percentage of those killed who were "unarmed." My question is do you see an issue with the way that you're presenting that data, given your claim that you're simply trying to record data without offering judgment?

Thanks for doing this AMA (AUA)

guardianjon5 karma

We think that "armed" is commonly accepted to mean someone carrying a weapon. We have included various categories of weapon such as firearms, knives and others.

Where there was a struggle that did not involve weapons, we have always tried to detail this in the summary of what happened on each card in the database.

One such example was William Chapman in Portsmouth, Virginia, in April: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#william-chapman-ii-345

Electricengineer6 karma

Is this something that had always been happening and is only coming to light due to the Internet and availability of information, or is there an upward trend in police killings?

guardianjon9 karma

Frustratingly we don’t really know, because of the lack of a comprehensive government count. Crowd-sourced counts such as KilledByPolice.net have been recording similar numbers in the past few years.

I do think, though, that the increased focus on these issues since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, last year has resulted in more care being taken to properly report on fatal incidents.

And the web – particularly social media such as Twitter – has definitely made it much simpler to count and monitor deaths remotely, for obvious reasons.

Anthonym825 karma

A recent New York Times article reported that minorities only make up a quarter of America's police forces. Do you think that recruiting more minority police officers would help alleviate the problems? Or do you think it's just a case of a cop with a happy trigger finger?

guardianjon16 karma

When I was reporting in Ferguson last year, a lot of residents told me and other journalists that the failure of their police department to accurately reflect the population was definitely a source of tension. The authorities there have acknowledged this and say they are working to strike a better balance, but it seems like slow work.

In our data collection, we are trying to record the racial details of officers involved in these fatal incidents, but in many cases the authorities refuse to name those involved, even after the verdicts are in on whether their actions were justified. So we don’t have enough information to publish yet.

Among those we do have, though, there is definitely a mix of black, white and Latino officers involved in fatal incidents. I think it’s worth noting that of the six officers charged with crimes over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, three were white and three were black. This is a complicated element of the issue.

Memag12554 karma

What states should I be extra careful in?

guardianjon5 karma

To answer a slightly different question, if that's OK with you, we have found that Oklahoma has the highest number of deaths per capita so far in 2015.

PHY_sics4 karma

What was arguably the worst (worst being the most cringe-worthy) case of an abuse of justice (resulting in killing) by a US police officer that you managed to find during your research?

guardianjon5 karma

We're not making judgments ourselves on whether these actions were just or unjust. But there have been a few incidents recorded in the database that resulted in criminal charges for officers. For example:

Matthew Ajibade in Georgia: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#matthew-ajibade-2

Freddie Gray in Maryland:http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#freddie-gray-421

Eric Harris in Oklahoma: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#eric-harris-289

MeanOfPhidias3 karma

Would you consider / Is there an API available so this data can be plugged in to other websites or easier spread across the web?

skeletoncoast3 karma

Do you care more about making this a race issue or more about stopping police brutality in the US? DO your numbers indicate what color the officers were? It seems, at first glance, you are making this to boost the popularity of your website rather than to fix a serious problem.

guardianjon3 karma

We care most about accurately presenting what is going on. The database does not currently feature the race of the officers involved because we have not been able to obtain enough of this information. Many agencies decline to identify the officers.

EpicczDiddy2 karma

How does it make you feel, seeing that all of these people have been killed for what seems like no reason?

guardianjon4 karma

We aren’t making personal calls on whether or not there was a reason people were killed, but recording some of these deaths has raised questions that we hope to illuminate in our reporting.

For example, I reported on the death of William Chapman, an unarmed 18-year-old who was suspected of shoplifting http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/william-chapman-unarmed-shot-dead I also looked at Stephen Rankin, the officer who shot him dead, who had killed another unarmed man a few years earlier: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/stephen-rankin-military-trained-officer-william-chapman

We want this reporting to prompt discussion about whether it can be necessary for an unarmed 18-year-old to be shot dead, and whether an officer with this kind of record may warrant further scrutiny by the authorities.

Working on this project has certainly given me a better appreciation for the texture of the issue. The people killed are from a variety of backgrounds and this is sometimes not comprehensively reflected in media coverage of fatalities involving police officers. We hope to address this with the project.

bmd0042 karma

Are you guys Americans?

guardianjon3 karma

The team behind the project – listed at the bottom of our FAQ page http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/about-the-counted – has a mixture of backgrounds.

Ten are American, seven are British, one is Australian and one is French-Canadian.

(I am British, Jamiles is American and Oliver is British)

virginiajeannemarie1 karma

Do you think the white cop on black man killings are racially motivated? If so, why? If not, what do you think is the cause?

guardianjon1 karma

We don’t know. But we want to collate information on the racial backgrounds of people killed by police and officers involved in such incidents so that people can at least begin to approach these issues.

Ulramar0 karma

When you all report on police killings, do you try to polarize your readers with race baiting and inflammatory headlines like other large media sources (CNN, MSNBC, FOX, BBC) or do you try to actually accurately report what happened?

guardianjon4 karma

We try to actually accurately report what happened