Fatal Force Project

On September 19, 2016 the Nashville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosted a conversation with David Fallis, deputy investigative editor of The Washington Post, about the newspaper’s Pulitzer-Prize winning creation of a national police shootings database. This is a feminist issue because policing shootings disproportionately impact marginalized groups such as people of color and people with disabilities and the collective is interested in visioning a world without police violence.

The Washington Post database, started in 2015, is called the Fatal Force Project. It only includes deaths by police shootings and not deaths in custody or taser deaths. It breaks the data down by state, gender, race, and if there was a weapon involved.

The September 19th meeting was at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt campus, with MTSU co-hosting the event. The discussion was facilitated by Deborah Fischer and David Fallis. The discussion was more like a large Q&A session. David was asked what prompted this database to come to life, and he answered that it was a long time coming. They had tried a similar project back in 2008 but it never made it off the ground. What re-sparked interested in the database was Ferguson, Missouri with the fatal shooting of Mike Brown. News agencies and the public became interested in fatal force used by police. They worked for months trying to find the best way to compile data and they found the best way would be to track police shootings in real time via news stories.

The reason they began the real time shootings started when they began requesting data from the FBI and they found it to be terribly incomplete. The team also knew that across the country there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies, so submitting requests for archived data would be impossible. David had a pro-law enforcement bias before he started the project and wasn’t sure the evidence would be there to show excessive shootings by police. However, once the data starting coming in it was overwhelming. The police were killing 3-4 people a day. He realized this project was worthwhile. David said “it changed my mind” about what they were doing after he saw the video death of Walter Scott, a man fatally shot by police in South Carolina.

They also found alarming rates of fatal police shootings in cases where there was a mental “crisis” by the civilian. However, they were quite conservative with their reporting of these numbers because of how difficult it is to say or prove a mental health issue after the person is dead. They also had many difficult discussions about how many people were armed vs unarmed. They tackled what “armed” meant or what posed a significant threat. I personally found David’s explanations of armed to be biased because of his heavy involvement and attachment with law enforcement (his father was a cop). From their definitions and data, they found about 3/4ths of civilians fatally shot by police were “armed”, which meant with a gun, a toy, a knife, a stick, basically anything other than their bare hands. He made it a point to mention that “unarmed” civilians involved in fatal shootings were a “small subset” of the people shot.

David also described the difficulty of obtaining information from police stations. Departments will rarely release the names of the cops who fatally shot folks. Other details leak quickly, the name of the person killed, their age, gender, race, if they were armed, etc. With what the Post dug up they found that around 50-55 officers who had fatally shot someone in 2015 had fatally shot someone at least once before. David mentioned with this type of data they now have and with the project they have undertaken, it has seriously changed the way people and the media report and view these issues. Media agencies now put more pressure on police departments to release the cops name and previous history of shootings, which was never the norm before.

The questions from Deborah ended at this time and it became an open floor for any of the people in the audience to ask some questions to David. A few items that came up was body cameras and the implications of using them. David mentioned that even with body cameras, it often made it less clear cut than they could have imagined. If footage could even be obtained from the department it was often unhelpful. Some questions were also asked about the difference between their data at the Post and the data that the Guardian has on their website. He explained the Guardian covers taser and in custody deaths and their coverage at the Post is only fatal force by shooting. I asked David about the gender makeup of the shootings and if they only covered the binary genders or also included a category for transgender people or gender nonconforming people. He admitted that they did not and it was purely on a binary scale of male or female.  I followed up with him on twitter because I was curious of what category transgender people killed by police got put into. He replied that the transgender people who get murdered by police go into the category of the gender at which they identified with at their death.

So what are the implications for this and the state of Tennessee? If you look on the website you can see that last year, 20 men were shot and killed by the police in our state. Out of the 20, 4 were black, 13 were white, 2 were another race, and 1 was not noted. There are 6,600,299 people in Tennessee as of 2015. That means there is a 0.00030302 chance of you being killed by an officer. Remember, this does not include taser nor in custody deaths. If you are a white male you have a 0.00054% of being shot. If you are a black male in Tennessee, you have a 0.00080% of being shot and killed. David is continuing his project into this year but is unsure of how long he can or will keep up with fatal force shootings by the police in the future.

-Kimmy G for the Nashville Feminist Collective

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