Our short bio: We’re Ben Montgomery and Neil Bedi, reporters at the Tampa Bay Times. We just published a project studying six years of Florida police shootings. Our main story looked into the different circumstances that led to the 827 shootings and ways to avoid the violence. A separate interactive story looked at the least violent people shot and the racial breakdowns of specific questionable circumstances. We have videos looking at specific cases the main story dives into. And, for PROOF, we published a database of every case, and built it so each one is treated as its own story.

Handles:

  • /u/BenjiMontgomery - Reporter
  • /u/NeilBedi - Reporter/Web developer (Connie Humburg, our database expert will also be available to answer though one of us)

Proof

Comments: 152 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

TheChlorinator22 karma

The interactive story only gives data for black and white people who were shot by police, and says these were the victims of most police shootings. I keep thinking of Florida's high Hispanic population and wondering how they don't factor in. Were hispanic people not shot at the same rate?

Thanks so much for doing this. I'm a huge fan of your work at the Times. Thanks for keeping the high standard of great journalism alive.

BenjiMontgomery16 karma

Great question, and it honestly felt like we failed to take a hard look at this, partly because there was some uncertainty about race reporting. We know that 120 of those shot were reported as Hispanic, but there were black Hispanics and white Hispanics, which is why we chose to categorize them that way. So our "black" is not only African American, and "white" is not only caucasion. If that makes sense. I hope Connie will fact check me here.

NeilBedi4 karma

Quick add from Connie: if we did find out that someone was Hispanic from another source, we did mark them as Hispanic. But Ben is right that there are inconsistencies with how agencies track it and they are our first source.

NeilBedi6 karma

Good question! So 128 Hispanics were shot, the third most and they did factor into some of the circumstances that we tracked.

But, when we were looking at violent and nonviolent/questionable circumstances, the main story started to focus on the fact that violent circumstances leaned more white and nonviolent leaned more black. The Hispanic group did not factor into nearly as many circumstances as our black and white groups.

For these interactives to hit the most readers we have to work hard to keep the stories as lean and focused as possible. Our main goal was to show that we had these almost equal shares of white and black people being shot but they were shot in very different ways.

Pekin_ND8414 karma

Do you guys think there is a "common sense" measure(s) that would eliminate a large chunk of these shootings?

BenjiMontgomery15 karma

They've been criticized, but I think the PERF guidelines make a lot of sense. Slow down, create time and distance, don't fire into vehicles, render first aid immediately after shooting, shape policy that's more strict than what's established by SC's Graham v. Connor.

More (pdf): http://www.policeforum.org/assets/30%20guiding%20principles.pdf

The criticism is that some of them put officers at greater risk.

Euchre4 karma

How about 'Think less about compliance to your authority for its own sake, and more about the actual circumstances of the situation'?

I think that's what many people feel is happening, and that's hard to verify through most data, especially when it is being produced by those with said authority.

BenjiMontgomery5 karma

You're talking about "proportionality," as some police call it? Like, don't use an elephant gun to kill a flea? Respond to force only with equal or appropriate force?

Euchre14 karma

In some of the most publicized cases that are very questionable, especially when there is video evidence, the greatest apparent 'threat' is the act of non-compliance itself, if not alone. It is as if law enforcement sees non-compliance to its authority as a weapon in and of itself.

A lot of the mentality of law enforcement training has become about 'controlling the situation' and subduing it, and less about judging the situation and trying to seek diffusion. When there's even a slight lapse of authority, it is programmed into an officer that they have essentially lost control of the situation, and thus can not subdue it.

BenjiMontgomery9 karma

Case law supports them. For instance: “The risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.” Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 702-703 (1981).

Euchre3 karma

Compliance with law enforcement used to be based on an expectation that from that point on, one would be treated less aggressively. What actually happens is not necessarily that, but often the person is treated with greater - and even punitive - aggression.

Maybe it is time for some of that legal precedent to be overturned.

NeilBedi3 karma

This video and the piece in the story on Mike Chitwood is somewhat relevant and fascinating.

Austin_RC2467 karma

Based on your research, what was the number one reason for shooting and how many were deemed justifiable?

NeilBedi5 karma

From Connie - Ben's stats on justifiable are good. The two top reasons were mental instability (246) and violent crime (244).

Austin_RC2461 karma

Both of which caused the officer to feel unsafe enough in the situation I suppose.

NeilBedi6 karma

It's definitely varied. Every case is so different, it's hard to summarize in a single circumstance or sentence. The database does help. You can search for mental instability and see how varied these cases are. Some are definitely dangerous.

Others like this autistic teenager throwing lava rocks at an officer feel less so.

The_Alaskan7 karma

Thanks for doing this, folks. This is James Brooks, the state reporter for the Juneau Empire in Alaska. Since I read the story, I've been wondering how to go about doing the same thing here, so I wanted to ask about the nuts-and-bolts behind it all.

Did you simply FOIA each LE agency in the state? How did you deal with a refusal or delay? If I were to try to duplicate this effort for Alaska, what advice would you give?

NeilBedi6 karma

Pretty much. It helps that Florida has great open records laws. We did take two years to collect all the data and I wasn't here during that (Ben will probably have more to say). I know some reporters helping us out had to be pretty persistent anytime we knew there was shooting but agencies wouldn't respond. (Persistence works a little better when there are good open records laws to back you up)

Here's our methodology page for more: http://www.tampabay.com/projects/2017/investigations/florida-police-shootings/about-this-project-methodology/

diegojones45 karma

What result surprised you the most?

BenjiMontgomery23 karma

That whites were responsible for 80 percent of what we call "suicide by cop," where a person has made suicidal statements and basically forces the police to shoot. That's an incredibly strong trend and makes me wonder what kinds of cultural ideas are at play. Welcome to ideas if anybody has them.

Euchre3 karma

Do those using 'suicide by cop' tend to have previous exposures to law enforcement? Do they tend to have convictions, and prison time?

NeilBedi3 karma

We didn't track this. It definitely came up in at least some cases and some of these people had been Baker Acted before. These people weren't typically our violent criminals though. They were typically in our mentally ill or mentally unstable group.

Like Ben said, there is a separate for people that resisted because they didn't want to go back to jail.

Euchre2 karma

I wasn't angling toward not going back to jail concerns, but if some of them blame law enforcement and the judicial system for their problems, and this was their basis for rationalizing the use of LEs as their 'weapon' of suicide.

In those more mentally stable people that would do this, I suspect shame and a fear of lack of constitution to commit would play a role in chosing 'suicide by cop'.

NeilBedi1 karma

Maybe, I'm saying this a lot but all of these cases, even under a single circumstance are so so different. Our database allows you to search specifically for suicide by cop cases (under mental health in the search bar) which might give you a better idea of what's going on.

Euchre2 karma

Are you planning to offer more visualizations of the data? Perhaps some Venn diagrams?

I'd like to see the overlaps of the cited 'circumstances', to better see if they are clustered (and thus compounding) - and would represent a smaller amount of the total 827, or if they are more spread and would expand the number of more justifiable shootings. Based on your 'more than 1 in' statements, it makes it appear that by implication, 4 or 5 out of those times, an individual may have been shot for no justifiable cause. If that were the case, this would be an extremely alarming situation. The very nature of the issue depends on that level of understanding of the data.

NeilBedi3 karma

Not in the near future... but our database would allow you to search for cases (which can have multiple people shot) like that. There is a search bar available and you can search by multiple circumstances to see clusters.

We did remove duplicates for final counts in the interactive. There are some clusters, especially when the circumstances cover similar things. But for the circumstances that aren't obviously linked, the clusters are much smaller.

Euchre1 karma

Interesting that 107 are found for 'drove at officer' and 23 are found for 'injured an officer with a vehicle', yet only 17 share both. So, 6 times they were injured with a vehicle that weren't driven by the victim? Did they shoot a bystander driver who then fell dead, causing their car to hit the officer? That'd be some interesting tactical work there!

Not trying to insult your work, but it shows how source data can be imperfect, and be a bit awkward to navigate.

NeilBedi3 karma

No worries, that's actually because not every officer injured by a vehicle was driven at. Sometimes they were dragged if they reached into the car or were nearby when some tried to make a getaway. And there are other weird reasons I can't remember right now.

A full methodology of how we defined circumstances is also available.

Euchre1 karma

That helps clarify a great deal.

Edit: Well, maybe not as much as I thought. In the methodology, it describes 'injured an officer with a vehicle' as:

Police said person hit a cop with their vehicle during confrontation.

Being 'hit' implies driven at, not dragged by.

NeilBedi1 karma

Hmm that's fair, let me check with Connie about that. Thanks for noticing!

Euchre1 karma

I'm hoping these discussions will result in a refinement of results. The best solutions come from the best understandings of the problem.

Perhaps "Police said person injured an officer by means of a vehicle during a confrontation." would work. Might not fit as gracefully in the CSS.

Edit: How long did this study take?

NeilBedi1 karma

We will post an edit soon.

We tried to make our definitions easy to understand but introduced "hit" at some point. I think the CSS should handle something very similar to your suggestion though. (Thanks again!)

OrangeLimeZest1 karma

What makes you laugh?

NeilBedi5 karma

Bob's Burgers.

tacey-us1 karma

Such an important topic and so difficult to handle without appearing to 'take sides' ahead of the data. Did you find any trends regarding the officers involved in shootings? Experience as LEO, prior experience with/without weapons, multiple involvements for certain officers...anything that would point to a training or testing solution?

NeilBedi3 karma

We looked at all of those factors but did not find any distinct trends. They had varied experience, varied ages, most were only involved in a single shooting from our six year span (although some were involved in more, which is an interesting database search).

There is something to be said about mentally unstable cases and training on that end. Mentally unstable people were one of the largest portions of people shot and many of these cases involved officers with little training on how to deal with a mentally unstable person.

Sunfried1 karma

Suppose Gov. Scott phones you up tomorrow and puts you in charge of designing a data form that will be filled out -- mandatory -- by police agencies and/or officers following every officer shooting. What data do you feel were missing and most essential to detect what's wrong with, with an ultimate goal towards remedial changes in training (and culture), the current state of armed policing? I imagine you have a big spreadsheet or SQL database somewhere and a lot of columns are entirely blank for a police agencies that just didn't think some data were worthy of capture. Do you sense in your gut that some police agencies were massaging the data to protect their officers' actions?

As part of this, you read a lot of news accounts of shootings-- what data would you like to see in order to help journalists be better reporters of these shootings?

/u/BenjiMontgomery, I heard about your reporting through WNYC/NPR's Radiolab; thanks for contributing there.

NeilBedi4 karma

I think having a mandatory single form solves MANY of our problems off the bat. The lack of consistency made things very difficult to compare without further research.

We're not sure about exact questions we would ask because these cases are so different, it's hard to cover everything in a single set of questions. Probably a "why the officer felt compelled to use deadly force" is a huge one that would allow a lot of necessary analysis.

hmmmbut1 karma

Are you considering looking at any other areas? I know in Seattle they have tried to really reduce shootings by police officers, and we should soon have more data thanks to bodycams. Are you planning to study cities and states with different approaches to the Florida approach? How would you go about getting data, and do you think you could produce a comparable data set?

NeilBedi4 karma

Probably not to be honest. The time (two years) and effort to do this kind of reporting is expensive and would probably need to be directly relevant to our core readership in Florida to invest in it.