'Guardian' Database Highlights Underreporting Of People Killed By Police

Jun 5, 2015
Originally published on June 5, 2015 6:47 pm

NPR's Audie Cornish talks with reporter Jon Swaine about The Guardian database on U.S. fatal police killings in 2015. The news outlet recorded figures twice as high as those reported by the FBI.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The case of Freddie Gray is now part the national conversation over police use of deadly force. But there are many incidents we don't hear about. It now appears that the numbers of people killed by people police are vastly underreported. The Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper have started to keep their own tallies. By using social media, local news reports and public records, they've come up with figures twice as high as those reported by the FBI. Jon Swaine of The Guardian is one of the reporters compiling a database of police fatalities. The project is called The Counted. He joined us from our New York studios. Welcome to the program.

JON SWAINE: Thanks for having.

CORNISH: So, first of all, help us understand why your numbers and the numbers kept by the government are so different.

SWAINE: The government numbers are put together by the FBI, and the problem with their system is that it's voluntary. There is no obligation on state and city and county authorities to report these numbers, and so many, many don't.

CORNISH: So help us understand how you went about the counting. I know that you guys did some crowdsourcing. Where else did you look?

SWAINE: We're looking at local media reports. We're looking at police and coroner press releases. Sometimes they're not noticed by the media. We're talking to people via this system that we've built now where the people can submit tips, can submit news if friends or if people they know or if they've even seen something happen. So we're really - I mean, we're making an attempt to cast an eye over the country, and obviously we're open to the possibility that we, too, are missing some and they're not being reported. But we thought better to make an effort and try to make a more comprehensive database.

CORNISH: So what number have you come up with? And give us the criteria that goes into that.

SWAINE: Our count currently sits at 473 for the year so far. So, obviously, that is more than twice the rate of the - what the FBI count has tended to be. We chose to include cases where, as best as can be determined, people were killed due to the actions of law enforcement officials. Now, the majority are shootings, so it's very obvious. There are others around the margins where tasers were used, where vehicles sometimes struck people, where physical force was used. But we thought we needed to make an attempt to include all of these, not just shootings.

CORNISH: So much of this conversation has been about race. What did you find when you broke down the numbers there?

SWAINE: Black Americans who were killed by police were twice as likely to be unarmed as white people killed by police. That is an interesting disparity. That is worthy of further inquiry, and I think it talks to a lot of the complaints that the activist groups on this issue have had. That is that African-American people, particularly African-American men, are treated differently.

CORNISH: Your reporting finds that 14 percent of those killed by police were Hispanic, and a majority of them carried no firearm. And we don't hear very often about those deaths. Do you have a sense of why those victims haven't sparked the same kind of public outrage?

SWAINE: I mean, the conclusion I draw is that the mainstream media perhaps hasn't caught up with the demographic changes in the U.S. We found five cases, in fact, of Latino men who were killed by police, and their names were never published by anyone until we found them.

CORNISH: Did you reach out to police unions or departments? And what kind of response did they have?

SWAINE: You know, we tried, and I think they were cautious and wanted to see what the project was like after being published rather than talk about before we went ahead. I think there's been understandable, perhaps, caution from police unions and police departments, but we really were determined with this project to present the wide range of experiences that these officers encounter to accurately represent the proportion of people that were armed and unarmed. The majority are armed. So we hope that police unions and police departments see a benefit in our project, that it's better to have this information out there comprehensively.

CORNISH: Can you tell us the story behind one of these names, someone in the database that we haven't heard about that struck you?

SWAINE: One case that struck me in particular was the case of young man called William Chapman. He was 18. He was black, and he was unarmed, which are the same characteristics of Michael Brown, who became a household name after Ferguson last year. But William Chapman didn't, and he was killed in the parking lot of a Walmart in southern Virginia when he was accused of shoplifting by a police officer. We still don't know whether he actually did steal merchandise. William struggled to get free, and there was a scuffle. And the police officer shot him dead, and it struck me as surprising that a young man ostensibly similar in situation to Michael Brown had passed the media and activist groups by. And it was a case, I think, that made us think this project was worthwhile.

CORNISH: Jon Swaine, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SWAINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Jon Swaine - he's a senior reporter with The Guardian. Their project is called The Counted. You can find a link on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.