On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.
I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions.
I will always uphold the Constitution, the community, and the agency I serve, so help me God. Law Enforcement Oath of Honor
One summer afternoon in Seattle, Washington in 2010, Officer Ian Birk noticed a man crossing a city street holding a knife. Officer Birk, a member of the Seattle Police Department, left his vehicle to handle the situation.
Officer Birk approached the man, commanding him to put down the knife. Less than 5 seconds later, Officer Birk had fired four shots into the man, killing him.
The man, John T. Williams, was a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribal group native to nearby Vancouver Island. He was a local woodcarver, hard of hearing, and was carrying a block of wood and his carving knife. Later reports by witnesses say that the knife was closed.
Birk's actions were found unjustifiable by the SPD Firearms Review Board, and subsequently reviewed by the Department of Justice. The DOJ decided not to press charges because they would have to prove intent, rather than negligence. The case was not prosecuted further after Birk resigned from the force.
Although Birk was not prosecuted, this case was at least reviewed independently to evaluate what happened. This internal investigation is not federally mandated, and may not have been completed in a different district or with a less publicized case.
The lack of federal guidelines following a police shooting makes it difficult to determine the number of incidents like this that are occurring in the US. We have an even less concrete idea of the number of cases that are properly investigated.
Comparing the incidents counted for 2015 by the Washington Post and by the FBI
The federal government does not require individual police departments to report when an officer kills a civilian. Because of this, the FBI records far fewer deaths than the Washington Post.
The FBI reported 442 incidents of police officers shooting and killing civilians in 2015. The Washington Post reported 991 incidents with the same description.
Creating a trusted and complete federal database is an important first step towards increasing accountability among the police. It seems impossible to recognize and potentially fix the problem of police brutality with incomplete knowledge of the nature, scale, and resulting investigations into civilian deaths.
Over the past few years, there has been public outcry for police reform due to the apparent targeting of minorities in instances of police brutality. With incomplete federal records, there is less impetus for the government to acknowledge that minorities may be unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
Some argue that there isn't a systematic bias in the police force because nearly 50% of the victims shot by police officers are White. While this is true from the Guardian's data, we see a different trend when comparing to the overall population according to the Census.
Most of the minorities listed by the U.S. census are overrepresented in the victims killed in altercations with the police, while White people are actually a much smaller percentage of the victims when compared to the whole population; the highest delta is for Black people who make up nearly twice the percentage of the victims as they do the overall population.
For many minorities listed here, particularly Black and Hispanic people, the delta increases when only considering victims that were unarmed or it is disputed if they were armed.
Click to see how the demographics of the victims change depending on if they were armed or not.
Every fatal shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 2015
Click on any state to zoom in/out on it.
Hover over any city to see details, and click on a city to select it.
In many cases brought against police officers, the main evidence in the case is based on conflicting accounts from the participants. The use of body cameras is something many push for as a step towards reducing the number of negative interactions between law enforcement and civilians. Body cameras have been shown by a Cambridge study to reduce complaints against police officers by 93%, which many see as an indication that these negative interactions decrease with the use of body cameras. Some hope that funding body cameras by police officers will lead to fewer deadly conflicts with civilians.
Individual officers become more accountable, and modify their behaviour accordingly, while the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous. Dr. Barak Ariel
There are many groups focused on solving this problem. One of these is Campaign Zero, which lays out ten focus areas for policy changes aimed at reducing police killings to zero. Examples of these focus areas in this campaign include requiring regular surveys from the community about police satisfaction, requiring independent investigations of every incident where civilians are seriously injured, and taking misconduct settlements from police department budgets rather than city budgets.
Civil Services provides an API to help you as a citizen to reach out to your representatives and governing officials to let them know how important these policy changes are to you and to the community at large. Try searching for your representative to the right using the widget made by Campaign Zero.
You can go to Campaign Zero's website to learn more about policy details they would like to have implemented and to support them by making a donation or volunteering.Campaign Zero
Until the FBI report includes all cases of police shootings, the Guardian and Washington Post datasets are the only way for the public to stay informed about these incidents. Consider donating to the Guardian or subscribing to the Washington Post to support these efforts since they provide the data and visualizations on their own cost.
The US has one of the highest rates of any country of civilian killings by police officers. Yet, there is no accurate federal database recording these incidents, no federal law or guideline on how individual departments should investigate these cases, and little movement towards actions that would increase officer accountability.
Our goal was to create an interactive data story about fatal police shootings in the United States. The Washington Post and the Guardian maintain detailed records of incidents of civilian fatalities caused by police. We used this data to visualize aggregate information about these fatalities and incorporate narrative elements to tell the stories of victims and we make an argument for why we think it's important for the federal government to have more accurate records of this data.