Washington Post & New York Times pay attention to independent criminal justice researchers

Over the past two months, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published analyses of civilian deaths caused by police in 2015.

The coverage of both newspapers credited and relies heavily on the work of independent researchers who have been compiling statistics on fatalities caused by police and publishing their results on the internet (similar to the work done by the Puppycide Database Project, but for humans). One such project is Fatal Encounters, created by D. Brian Burghart. Fatal Encounters maintains the most comprehensive database of deaths caused by the police, and has spent the last three years compiling their data. The newspapers also relied on the work of killedbypolice.net/, a group that has compiled police killing statistics for the last two years.

Washington Post graphic showing fatal shootings of civilians by US police for January through May of 2015

Continued coverage of objective statistics surrounding police violence is great news for those invested in the success of law enforcement (read: pretty much everyone). While there has been a growing amount of national attention to the deaths of those in police custody, the majority of that attention and the subsequent activism has focused solely on one issue driving the violence: racial disparities in police violence.

The numbers are clear: that nationally and in most states African Americans are over-represented both as prisoners and as victims of police violence. Exactly how to address that issue is less clear. In many of the high-profile killings of African Americans by police, either African Amerian police were involved in the killing, Africian American officers already ran the police department responsible for the killing, or both. Obvious solutions to racial disparities in punishment, like affirmative action in hiring and promotion policies among police departments may be less effective than approaches that are not directly tied to race, for example state and municipal policies forcing departments to prohibit street-level drug enforcement, disbanding cross-departmental "joint task forces" that have been at the fore-front of the most violent tactics, reigning in the influence of police unions, legislation eliminating so-called "qualified immunity" that allows police responsible for eggregious conduct to avoid civil culpability and systematic reform to municipality practices toward the investigation and prosecution of law enforcement employees that are accused of crimes.

Strategies for enacting reform can (and should) be evaluated by efficacy. For example, street protests can provide media attention to long-ignored systemic failures of law enforcement; however it appears to be rare for actual reforms to follow such protests. Punitive lawsuits, municipal lobbying and political advocacy in law enforcement position elections have been much more effective in producing changes in policy. Perhaps the most dramatic reform actions are achieved through settlements negotiated between municipal police departments and the Civil Rights Division of the FBI. PuppycideDB staff have spoken to a number of journalists who have told us that it is common for municipal police executive officers to contact the FBI Civil Rights Division themselves in order to attempt reform that entrenched interests, such as the relevant Police Benevolent Associations, police unions, district attorney and private law enforcement interests (Corrections Corp of America, GEO Group, etc), make impossible for even local law enforcement management to achieve. The threat of lengthy and expensive civil rights litigation, not to mention criminal charges, from Federal law enforcement, has a demonstrated track record of efficacy in law enforcement policy reform. With that said, criminal justice research has yet to address how such interventions actually impact rates of police violence and civil rights violations over time. There is no shortage of police departments claiming such successes, however confirming that success is difficult for a number of reasons. Attempts by the Puppycide Database Project to confirm such claims have been frequently stymied by the fact that federal interventions often represent the beginning of not just transparency with the handling of open records requests, but the beginning of any records-keeping relating to police use of deadly force. For years, not only have police departments been hiding records related to incidents of police violence, but hundreds of police departments across the country have, for decades, simply refused to keep any records related to such incidents (or have destroyed them and claimed the records never existed later). The opportunities for corruption in such an arrangement are clear.

In summary, PuppycideDB applauds both the Post and the Times for the resources they have provided to providing the public with the best information available as to what our law enforcement departments have been up to. We hope that the attention continues; objective and efficacious policy reform is achievable only with the aid of objective analysis.