Organizing Data for Accountability: The Washington Post Tracks Fatal Police Shootings in the U.S.

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Screen shot of the Washington Post’s 2016 fatal police shootings database, hovering over Philando Castile, in whose memory you can help pay off schoolchildren’s lunch debt .

Beginning in 2015, the Washington Post has been compiling a database of fatal police shootings in the United States. According to their methodology, they have been combing through “local news reports, law enforcement websites and social media,” as well as consulting similar, smaller projects (namely Killed By Police and Fatal Encounters). They record each incident according to a structure standard with a growing list of fields, tracking certain elements (metadata!) such as the circumstances of the shooting, race and mental health of the victim, etc.

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Screen shot of the Washington Post’s 2017 fatal police shootings database, hovering over October

The data is presented in an interactive website—a very simple but effectively bleak design. Underneath the death toll at the top of the page, each victim is represented by a gray box that gives their name when you hover over it (at the top of this post). The number of these boxes is appropriately unsettling…you begin to wonder how long you will have to scroll to get up to date. The incidents are expandable, as well as searchable by certain criteria. There are interactive data visualizations as well, including a line graph comparison of the three years (above), and a map of the United States showing where the police killings were concentrated (below). Additionally, in 2016, the Post began following up incident reports with open-records requests to all implicated police departments in order to compile more information on the officers involved, and users can see how many of these requests were fulfilled, denied, or are still pending.

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Screen shot of the Washington Post’s 2017 fatal police shootings database, hovering over NY

The Post notes that this project fed off of the momentum generated by the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which drew attention to the hole-ridden data that the federal government had been keeping on police shootings. New eyes on this data found it to be unreliable and incomplete, and in fact:

“In 2015, the Post documented more than twice as many fatal shootings by police as had been recorded by the FBI. Last year, the FBI announced plans to overhaul how it tracks fatal police encounters.”

The Post’s efforts won them the 2016 Pulitzer for national reporting, but more valuable than that is the notion that compiling and organizing data can be used to hold government agencies accountable. It is unacceptable that the FBI treated this data with such negligence, and while it remains to be seen if this changes, we thankfully have others who are keeping them under deserved scrutiny, putting in the work to compile complete and detailed data, and making it widely available.

Here is the Washington Post’s 2017 database. Additionally, the Post provides all of their data for download at GitHub.

Written by Dana Kautto, 653-01

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Cataloging, Open Data, Research Projects, Uncategorized

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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