Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

We here at the Independent debated postponing our annual Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll this year.

Why? For one thing, the city magazine and the daily already do readers’ polls—and the timing of the daily’s poll overlaps with ours, which confuses the heck out of everyone.

For another thing … as you know, we’re in the middle of a raging pandemic, which has curtailed or shuttered many of the businesses and organizations that are featured in our poll.

However, upon further reflection, we decided not to postpone our poll … so here we go! First-round (nomination) voting will be open through Monday, Sept. 14. Go here to access the ballot, where you will fill in the blank in each category. (In other words, we have no pre-determined list of candidates.)

Why did we decide to press forward? Well, for one thing—and I say this with all due respect to the winners and everyone else otherwise involved—those other readers’ polls are kind of terrible.

For our Best of Coachella Valley poll, we ask each reader to vote only once per round, because our goal is to come up with a slate of truly excellent finalists and winners. The other polls have no such prohibition, because the goal of those polls is not to get a great slate of finalists and winners—the goal is for the publications to get as much web traffic as possible from readers visiting their websites over and over again to vote.

The other reason why we pressed forward: There’s never been a more important time to shine a light on the valley’s best businesses, individuals and organizations, because so many of us are struggling right now.

The top vote-getters in the first round of voting will advance to the final round, which will take place at starting Monday, Sept. 28. The Best of Coachella Valley results will be announced at on Monday, Nov. 23, and in our special December print edition.

Thanks in advance to all of you wonderful readers who take the time to vote!

Today’s news—and, boy oh boy, is there a lot of it:

Sigh. Here’s a lede from an NBC News story: “A Black man was shot in the back multiple times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday, a bystander's video showed, prompting community protests and widespread anger.” Thank god this time the victim lived: Jacob Blake, 29, is in serious but stable condition. Here’s what happened, according to Blake’s attorney: “Blake was helping to deescalate a domestic incident when police drew their weapons and tasered him. As he was walking away to check on his children, police fired their weapons several times into his back at point blank range. Blake’s three sons were only a few feet away and witnessed police shoot their father.”

This is why it’s not a good idea to have large gatherings of people, especially indoors, right now: “The number of COVID-19 cases connected to a wedding reception in Millinocket (Maine) continues to climb, with state health officials saying on Saturday that they could trace 53 confirmed cases of coronavirus to the reception. That’s up from 32 confirmed cases on Friday.”

• If you’ve ever doubted whether an absence of competent federal leadership can truly affect issues at the local level, this story will erase those dounts rather quickly: The Associated Press reports that distance-learning efforts are being hampered by a laptop shortage. Key quote: “The world’s three biggest computer companies, Lenovo, HP and Dell, have told school districts they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops, in some cases exacerbated by Trump administration sanctions on Chinese suppliers, according to interviews with over two dozen U.S. schools, districts in 15 states, suppliers, computer companies and industry analysts.”

• We’re only three stories in, and I need a drink. Or three. So here’s the Independent’s most recent cocktail column, in which Kevin Carlow offers guidance on how to make all the basic drinks. Cheers.

• Aaaand now back to the news, and this horrifying Business Insider headline: “Rats reported feeding on packages of rotted fruit and meat as postmaster general’s cutbacks unleash chaos at California's mail centers.” Sigh. And Ew.

• More bad news: It’s now been proven that a person can indeed get COVID-19 more than once. MedPage Today offers the damning details. But, no panicking! Key quote: “‘My hope is that while reinfection has been documented, it is a rare or uncommon occurrence,’ Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who was not involved in the research, told MedPage Today. ‘So far that seems to be the case, but we're still only a few months into this pandemic.’”

CBS News-YouGov just did a poll asking people about the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. … and sit down for this one: “57 percent of Republican respondents said the U.S. death toll for COVID-19 was ‘acceptable,’ while 43 percent said it was ‘unacceptable.’ Republicans were the only partisan group of which a majority of voters said the number of deaths was acceptable. Among Democrats, 10 percent said the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. was acceptable, while 90 percent said it was unacceptable. For independents, 33 percent labeled the death toll as acceptable, and 67 percent called it unacceptable.” For the record, that U.S. death toll is currently approaching 180,000.

The FDA on Sunday, after pressure and criticism from the president, decided to authorize the emergency use of convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients. The move has been criticized by many experts—including those from the WHO, Reuters reports.

• OK, here’s some actual good news: California has been approved for the extra $300 in weekly unemployment funds. BUT it’s going to take several weeks to actually start happening, and there are all sorts of exclusions. Bleh. The San Jose Mercury News explains.

• More good news: It appears the number of coronavirus infections nationwide is decreasing—and, according to The New York Times, experts say that’s because various restrictions, like mask ordinances, are having an effect.

The New York attorney general is looking into possible corruption in the Trump Organization. Key quote: “The attorney general’s office said it began investigating after Trump’s former lawyer and ‘fixer,’ Michael Cohen, told Congress in February 2019 that Trump had used these statements to inflate his net worth to lenders. The filing said that Eric Trump had been scheduled to be interviewed in the investigation in late July, but abruptly canceled that interview. The filing says that Eric Trump is now refusing to be interviewed, with Eric Trump’s lawyers saying, ‘We cannot allow the requested interview to go forward … pursuant to those rights afforded to every individual under the Constitution.’” Hmm.

Two political science professors, writing for The Conversation, examine a negative aspect to mail-in voting you may not have thought of: secrecy, or a lack thereof. Key quote: “Mail-in voting still requires an official ballot, and can still be validated and counted anonymously. That eliminates what’s commonly known as voter fraud—where someone casts a ballot on behalf of someone else. But it doesn’t address outside forces influencing the authentic voter at the moment they make their decision. The voter marks the ballot outside the supervision of election monitors – often at home. It’s possible to do so in secret. But secrecy is no longer guaranteed, and for some it may actually be impossible.”

The weather is finally giving overwhelmed and tired firefighters a break in Northern California. But dry and dangerous conditions remain.

Another county has been removed from the state’s COVID-19 watch list, meaning some businesses and schools may begin to reopen soon there. Congratulations to … (checks notes) … Orange County!?

• OK, this is genuinely a very cool thing, because it shows the technology exists, and could be more widespread soon: The San Francisco International Airport has set up rapid COVID-19 testing for employees and flight crews (but not, as of yet, passengers). Key quote: “Technicians use an Abbott Labs device, about the size of a toaster oven, to analyze samples obtained using a nasal swab. Abbott Labs said the device ‘amplifies the RNA hundreds of millions of times to make the virus detectable—returning test results in 13 minutes or less.’

• The city of Palm Springs will soon be closing down part of Palm Canyon Drive to allow restaurants to expand. “The pilot program, which is expected to kick off within the next two weeks, would allow for a full closure of Palm Canyon Drive between Baristo Road and Tahquitz Canyon Way,” says the news release.

• Also Palm Springs downtown-related, from the Independent: The PS City Council agreed to cut $3 million in funding from the under-construction downtown park when it passed the new budget several months ago. However, on Aug. 6, in a 3-2 vote, full funding for the park was restored—a move that infuriated many within the local business community. Kevin Fitzgerald talks to the City Council and breaks it all down.

• This damn pandemic has claimed another local restaurant: Zobo and Meester’s announced today it will close for good on Sept. 9.

• Alt-country great Justin Townes Earle died last week at his Nashville home, at the age of 38. You can read his New York Times obituary here. He appeared at Stagecoach several times, and spoke to the Independent in advance of the 2017 festival. “Nobody should ever expect me to make the same record twice, or (for the records to) even to be in line with each other,” he said. “I’m a whimsical motherfucker.” RIP, Justin.

• We’re now entering the “Let’s Get Weird!” section: Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned from Liberty University today after the news broke that his wife—with Falwell’s knowledge and occasional from-a-distance participation—apparently had a long affair with a younger man who was a “pool attendant” when they met. From NPR: “Falwell's departure comes on the heels of an investigation by Reuters on Monday in which Falwell's former business partner, Giancarlo Granda, claimed he had a multiyear sexual relationship with Falwell's wife, Becki, which involved Falwell looking on while the pair engaged in sex acts.

Or maybe he isn’t resigning. Hmm.

KFC has temporarily dropped its “finger lickin’ good” slogan, because, you know, WE CAN’T LICK OURSELVES ANYMORE BECAUSE OF COVID. Wait. That’s not exactly what I meant … oh, never mind.

That’s a LOT of news for today. Be safe. Be careful. Be happy. Please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent, to help us keep doing quality local journalism. The Digest will return Wednesday.

Published in Daily Digest

We hit 115 degrees today, and it’s only June 3.

Meanwhile, the country remains a mess … although we got some good news today.

Let’s get right into the links:

• The big national news of the day: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced that Derek Chauvin—the Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, resulting in Floyd’s death—would be charged with second-degree murder; and that the other three officers involved in the incident—Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao—would be charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Chauvin had previously been charged with third-degree murder; the other three officers had not yet been charged. 

Ellison, however, also offered a warning: He said that getting a conviction in the case(s) against the officers “will be hard.” 

• While some Republicans are standing by President Trump’s attempt to militarize law-enforcement responses against the protests taking place around the country (or, rather, make the responses even more militarized), others—including Defense Secretary Mark Esper—are quickly backing away.

• Meanwhile, a former Trump defense secretary—James Mattis, who served in the position until December 2018—excoriated Trump. Key quote: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.

The Guardian offers a look at the lives of some of the men and women killed during the protests over the last eight days

• It’s been said that if you want to understand the nature of a police force, you look not at the chief, but at the head of the union. Well, The Intercept looked at Lt. Bob Kroll, head of Minneapolis’ police union—and saw some pretty rotten stuff.

More evidence of rot in the Minneapolis PD comes from The New York Times: Black people make up 19 percent of Minneapolis’ population—but 58 percent of the police-use-of-force cases.

• The New York Times examined how some law-enforcement offers are feeling very conflicted right now. The headline and sub-headline: “For Police Officers, Demonstrations Take a Toll and Test Duty: As the world watches demonstrations unfold on television and social media, both the best and the worst of American law enforcement has been on display.

The Los Angeles Times looks at the protests taking place in the Inland Empire—and the previous cases of police violence that are helping motivate them.

This NPR headline just made me sigh and desire a cocktail: “In George Floyd Protests, China Sees A Powerful Propaganda Opportunity.

• Former President Barack Obama spoke today as part of a Town Hall organized by his foundation. Read about his remarks—or watch what he had to say—here.

• A very cool feature from the Newseum—which continues online after closing its physical space at the end of last year: Each day, hundreds of newspapers send their front pages to the Newseum to post online. Check it out.

• And now to the day’s coronavirus news—which is very much still a thing: According to The Conversation, California’s relatively early shelter-in-place order may have saved 1,600 lives in one month.

• Riverside County has set aside more than $30 million in federal stimulus money for tenants who need help with rent. Applicants may receive up to three months’ rent, or $3,500, whichever is less. Learn more here.

• Keep your fingers crossed: Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview yesterday that he’s hoping we will have a couple hundred million doses of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine ready by the end of the year. Yay!

However, he also said the vaccine may not offer protection for very long. Boo!

AMC Theatres says that it may not be able to survive the pandemic.

That’s enough news for the day. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Black Lives Matter. If you value independent, local, honest journalism, and can spare a few bucks, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

While this Daily Digest is (for now, at least) dedicated to news about COVID-19 and the resulting societal and economic mess, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what’s going on in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, murders like that of George Floyd, at the hands of police officers, are nothing new—and until recently, police-involved deaths weren’t even properly tracked. This is something my friend and fellow journalist D. Brian Burghart discovered when he was the editor of the Reno News & Review newspaper. So he did something about it: He started tracking them—and, with grant funding, donations and a team of volunteers, created a national database of deaths, going all the way back to 2000, called Fatal Encounters.

The Independent covered Fatal Encounters back in 2016, when Burghart and his team completed California’s data set. When I talked to Brian for the story in 2016, I asked him why he thought the government hadn’t been keeping track of police deaths. An excerpt from the story:

“It’s usually just incompetence, to be honest,” he said. “Many people that I’ve talked to over the years want to find a conspiracy, but I really believe that it’s mostly government incompetence.”

California’s government has done better than most at gathering data. The state Office of the Attorney General’s “Open Justice” website offers data on deaths in custody and arrest-related deaths between 2005 and 2014. Over that period, the state database includes about 1,200 arrest-related deaths.

Over that same time period, Burghart said, Fatal Encounters has counted twice the number of deaths.

“The government tracks everything that it thinks matters. That suggests to me that the government does not believe that these deaths matter,” he said. “If a low-tech guy like me could do this, then the FBI—with millions of dollars to apply to it and super high-tech knowledge—could do it in an hour.”

Thankfully, due to Fatal Encounters, we now have a good database—which is being used by analysts and scientists to find trends and craft policy. (We actually have more than one database, including one by The Washington Post—which took Brian’s idea without credit, created an inferior-if-prettier database, and won a Pulitzer Prize for it … but that’s an annoying story for another time, preferably when bars are open again.)

Unfortunately, racism and bad cultures in some police departments remain big problems. One would presume that since most of the country has been sheltering in place for a good chunk of 2020, police-involved killings would be down this year. Right? No … they’re actually up.

Meanwhile, Brian and his team continue to update Fatal Encounters—making the data available to all. Brian tells me that as of today, the database includes 28,200 death records … with 265 known asphyxiation/restraint deaths—including the horrifying killing of George Floyd.

Today’s news links:

• This week’s edition of the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast/videocast is up! I joined Dr. Laura Rush, fabulous Stoli rep Patrik Gallineaux and hosts John Taylor, Shann Carr and Brad Fuhr to talk about reopening, the virus and other pertinent things.

• Keeping with the themes of 1) all studies like this need to be taken with that gigantic grain of salt, and 2) we really know so darned little about this damned virus: A new study reveals that during a COVID-19 outbreak on a cruise ship, 80 percent of the people who had the virus were asymptomatic. Yes, 80-percent.

• The state other states should emulate regarding the response to the pandemic is … South Carolina?! Yep, at least in some ways; as The Conversation points out, South Carolina is doing a fantastic job with contact tracing.

• Wear your mask; keep social distancing; wash your hands; and realize that some California counties are actually slowing or backtracking on the reopening process because of new spikes in cases.

• Meanwhile, the Bay Area has been extra-cautious and slow regarding reopening—but today, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced plans to get the process (still slowly) moving.

• The state has called for SARS-CoV-2 testing to take place at all California nursing homes.

The maker of remdesivir gave the medicine to the federal government to distribute. Well, so far, that hasn’t gone so well, according to The Washington Post.

• Also from The Washington Post: Could Fitbits, Apple Watches and other wearable devices alert a person that they’re showing signs of COVID-19 infection? It’s a good possibility.

• Here’s an update on the complete mess that is the Pennsylvania Legislature, where at least one GOP lawmaker tested positive for the virus—and decided that was information his Democratic colleagues didn’t need to know.

• Another update: A week or so ago, we reported that the Trump administration was planning on ending the deployment of National Guard members helping in pandemic-response efforts around the country—on the day before benefits kicked in. Fortunately, the administration has changed course and announced the deployments would be extended.

Trump, as promised, signed an executive order aimed at curtailing efforts by Twitter and other social-media sources to censor him. NPR explains what this does and doesn’t mean.

• Local political types are encouraging people—even asymptomatic people—to get tested for the virus. If this is something that interests you, here’s the county’s map of state and county testing sites. The tests won’t cost you anything out of pocket—but be sure you make an appointment.

• And finally: With tongue firmly in cheek, here’s a letter from the university of your choice regarding its plans for the next semester.

That’s today’s news. Be kind. Wash your hands. Buy our splendid Coloring Book—I am mailing the next batch of orders tomorrow, so now’s the time!—and please consider supporting honest, ethical local journalism, made available for free to all, by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

On this week's shocking weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles looks at how lynchings have changed over the years; This Modern World ponders what would happen if Trump's cabinet were completely honest; Jen Sorenson considers shamings over free school lunches; Apoca Clips announces the appearance of the Antichrist's emissary; and Red Meat experiments with crawfish and explosives.

Published in Comics

On this week's fall-colored Independent comics page: Red Meat enjoys a new gig; Jen Sorenson brings us Voter Suppression Funnies; The K Chronicles gets cranky about a letter to the editor; and This Modern World has a chat with Droney the Drone.

Published in Comics

With a bill to mandate the independent investigation of officer-involved killings in California stalled in committee, other legislative efforts have revealed lawmakers’ picky appetites for holding law-enforcement communities accountable.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s bill to outsource the investigation of fatal police encounters, AB 86, is being “held under submission.” The term means there’s a stated desire to discuss the bill, but no forward momentum to move it out of committee.

The same fate recently visited Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s Assembly Bill 619, which would require law-enforcement agencies to report their use-of-force encounters to the California attorney general’s office on an annual basis.

There currently is no official database documenting fatal police encounters, much less one for confrontations that stop short of death. Weber’s bill would greatly expand what is known about when and how force is applied by California’s law-enforcement establishment.

Referencing the viral-video litany that includes such names as Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, racial-justice advocate Chauncee Smith indicated that lawmakers have before them a grim opportunity.

“While it is quite difficult to discern betterment in such tragedy, if it exists, it may be that it has delivered a proverbial gut check to our society,” Smith, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, told an Assembly committee on May 27.

Yet the guts of lawmakers may not be quite as big as their eyes. The tepid response to Weber’s AB 619 is due, in part, to its $3.3 million price tag.

Finding more support was AB 1289, authored by a former cop himself, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, of Elk Grove. Unanimously approved by the state Assembly, the proposal now moves to the Senate. If passed, the bill would require a study on local community policing and engagement strategies. The bill shifts that authority from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets the minimum standards for becoming a cop.

Taryn Kinney, a spokesperson for Assemblyman Cooper, said it was the LAO that recommended the shift, since POST’s contacts with local law enforcement agencies would make the data-collection process easier.

Lastly, there’s AB 953, also by Weber. It would expand California’s prohibition against racial profiling to include all forms of identity bias, and create an advisory board under the state attorney general’s office to oversee such efforts in 2016.

AB 953 advanced through the Assembly’s appropriations committee on May 28.

“We’ll see if our Assembly actually has the courage to do what the people are asking for,” Weber said during the committee meeting.

Apparently, there was some courage in the Assembly: It passed on June 3, and the bill is now in the Senate’s hands.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review.

Published in Politics

On this week's preservative-laden Independent comics page: The K Chronicles takes a rather interesting stance on vaccines; This Modern World has a revealing talk with a cop; Jen Sorenson looks at the pros and cons of Hillary Clinton; and Red Meat does some pickling.

Published in Comics

As darkness and a chill fell over northwestern New Mexico on a Friday in late November, two men flagged down a San Juan County sheriff’s deputy to report a scuffle, with at least one firearm involved.

The altercation was going down in Spencerville, an ad-hoc collection of homes, beat up cars and dust that lies just off the highway that links the towns of Aztec and Farmington. As the deputies responded, they heard gunshots, and called for backup. Three more deputies arrived, along with a New Mexico state trooper.

As the five deputies approached the area from which the shots came, the trooper flanked off to one side, armed with an AR-15. He saw a “silhouette of a person raising a weapon,” according to a court document, and fired two shots. When a male voice screamed that the trooper had missed, he ran to another location, took aim and fired two more shots. The “silhouette,” a 27-year-old Navajo man named Myles Roughsurface, fell to the ground, dead.

Roughsurface was the third person killed at the hands of law enforcement officers in San Juan County this year, and the 10th in New Mexico. In 2014, the cop-related death toll for 11 Western states was at about 200, based on a Wikipedia survey of media reports. On Christmas Day, for example, Omar Rodriguez, 35, of Coachella, was killed by a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy after Rodriguez reportedly tried to fight her and take her baton.

National attention in recent months has been on the police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in Missouri, Ohio and New York, respectively. But when it comes to the rate of police-related killings per capita, as we reported last month in “Fatal Encounters,” the West is the worst.

The statistics on such things are notoriously incomplete, depending upon individual law enforcement agencies to report the numbers (a problem the Fatal Encounters effort is attempting to solve). And the numbers, of course, don’t reveal the circumstances of the death—whether a cop fired out of self-defense or to save the life of an innocent, or whether he acted with excessive force. But regardless of which set of stats one uses, this is clear: Westerners are almost twice as likely as Americans as a whole to suffer from “arrest-related death,” as the Department of Justice terms it, or fatal injury due to “legal intervention,” per the nomenclature of the Centers for Disease Control.

From 2004 to 2010, Americans died from legal intervention—which includes not only homicide, but also dying in custody from accidental causes or suicide—at a rate of .13 per 100,000 people. During that same period of time, legal intervention killed Westerners at a rate of .23 per 100,000. New Mexico cops used lethal force at a higher rate than those in any other state; Oregon and Nevada were close behind, and every other Western state had a rate higher than the U.S. average. As was the case in the U.S. as a whole, African Americans were the most likely to be killed by cops in the West over that particular period, followed closely by Native Americans, Hispanics and, finally, non-Hispanic whites; during other periods of time, Native Americans are victimized at the highest rate. Three Navajos were killed over a period of just six months in late 2008 and early 2009; one of the victims was killed by the same trooper who shot Roughsurface.

The killings often go down without getting wide media or public notice. But last spring, Albuquerque Police Department officers shot and killed a homeless man, James Boyd, who was armed with a small knife. The killing was caught on video, drawing national attention to the APD’s history of using excessive force, and inspiring protests. Just a month later, the Justice Department released its report— in the works since 2012—on the department, finding that the “APD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.” Since 2010, according to a KRQE News analysis, APD officers have shot and killed at a rate of four per 100,000 people, which is more than 30 times the national rate.

Utah garnered unwanted national attention as well, after officers from the Saratoga Springs police department responded to a report of a man with a samurai-style sword acting suspiciously outside a Panda Express. After 22-year-old Darrien Hunt, who was black, allegedly lunged at the officers, he was shot dead.

The heartbreaking stories do little to hint at the reasons for what appears to be a Western epidemic. Yet correlations with other stats hint at directions: Western states, for example, have a much higher suicide rate than other states, a possible indicator that untreated mental illness is more prevalent here. Victims of police shootings are often exhibiting signs of mental illness when they’re shot; one of the victims in San Juan County, after behaving erratically and while fighting with police, slashed his own throat just before an officer shot him in the head.

There’s also a loose correlation in the West between police-related shooting rates and economic health. New Mexico, for example, leads the nation in arrest-related deaths, and also has among the highest rates of poverty and income inequality. That can create an environment of desperation, leading to more crime.

Then there’s the West’s gun-loving culture and high rates of firearm ownership and firearm-related killings. Gun-rights advocates argue that the ubiquity of guns deters crime, because a criminal never knows which average Joe might whip out a pistol and blow the would-be criminal away. That same wariness must extend to police officers: If they’re in a region where guns are everywhere, then when a suspect reaches for something in his pocket, it’s reasonable to suspect that it might be a gun.

Whatever reason we might come up with for this sort of violent tragedy, it’s not likely to soothe the sorrow of the victims’ families and friends—or the trauma felt by a police officer who shoots and kills someone, particularly if by mistake.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Local Issues

Samantha Bee of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is in a hurry. She rushes down a New York City sidewalk but then bumps into Nate Silver, the data journalist—formerly of The New York Times and now of ESPN—known for predicting the last presidential elections’ outcomes.

She stops, and while you might say that Bee appears a little frantic, she’s also relieved. That’s because, on the heels of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a cop in Ferguson, Mo., she’s trying to learn more about the data behind officer-involved shootings. Like, for instance, how many people die each year at the hands of cops?

Bee grabs Silver, the nation’s foremost stat geek, on the shoulder, then asks him, “How many people were shot and killed last year by the police?”

“I don’t …” Silver begins. “Those statistics just don’t exist.”

Facepalm. Bee appears incredulous. Eventually, she moves on, ever-frustrated.

This scene isn’t from the real world. It’s part of a Daily Show episode that aired in October. In this segment, Bee simply cannot believe that there is not a national database keeping track of officer-involved shootings. She searches everywhere—from universities to the FBI—to find answers. But no dice.

Then, at the end of the segment, she meets up with D. Brian Burghart.

Burghart is the editor of the Reno News & Review. (It should also be noted that he’s a close friend of Independent publisher Jimmy Boegle.) In his spare time, he also is in charge of Fatal Encounters, a website dedicated to crowdsourcing a comprehensive and searchable database of all police-involved shootings.

Fatal Encounters launched in February, and it’s since documented more than 3,000 officer-involved shootings across the nation. This data is acquired via public-record requests, and is crowdsourced from readers.

During the past year, Burghart’s site has turned him into a de facto expert when it comes to issues like Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York police, or Brown’s killing by an officer in Ferguson. He has appeared on CNN multiple times, and had his work featured by Gawker, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Al-Jazeera America.

As major protests—from Los Angeles and Oakland to New York City—have brought police killings and the oversight thereof to the forefront of America’s water-cooler news cycle. Burghart took the time to discuss this country’s outrage, what reform of fatal police encounters might look like—and if any of this will even make a difference.

Let’s talk about what everyone seems to be discussing: Eric Garner, the non-indictment of the officer who killed him, and the thousands of activists in New York City’s streets. There’s total outrage. What do you make of it, and what impact do you think it will have?

I don’t think it will have much impact at all, to be honest.

That’s depressing.

After Michael Brown—when entire towns are taken over, and people are outraged—the entire country turns around and looks. In New York, this officer literally broke police procedures and used the chokehold, that was not supposed to be used, and the grand jury still does not indict. I don’t have hope that this is going to change things. I cannot believe that it will change things.

Do you see indictments of cops that have killed?

Almost never. It’s gotta be something so egregious. In Nevada, it’s generally been car accidents. … If a law-enforcement officer is late for dinner and is going 100 mph down the freeway and kills somebody, those people get indicted and go to jail. … But as far as officer-involved shootings, it’s almost gotta be … like a first-degree murder situation before they are indicted, because grand juries have not shown any desire to second-guess officers.

But Garner was clearly not a threat. So many people have seen video of his death; you have politicians speaking out; you’ve got thousands of people in the street—

This stuff mystifies me. It just mystifies me. I don’t know what that grand jury saw, but—

Do you think part of the problem is the information prosecutors give these grand juries?

I’m sure it is. But I don’t know. I can’t say specifically.

Is this why the Ferguson grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson?

When we’re talking about this pattern, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it’s the grand-jury system that we actually need to be looking at. It’s the system of … what kind of oversight (we) have over law enforcement.

… It makes a lot of sense to me to have a state agency doing an independent review of police shootings and overseeing it all. Do any states do that?

Yeah, there are a couple. Massachusetts—oh boy, I’m going to get this wrong as soon as I start spouting out specific states. I believe the ones we found were Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont. I think those are the three.

So sort of liberal, East Coast, blue-state policy. But do they indict?

No, not to a greater degree, no.


But, then … the non-Wild West states tend to have much lower numbers than the West does. For example I heard, I think it was a (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report that said California is the worst.

How did we get here?

It would be very difficult for me to answer that question. These things happen incrementally. A lot of people blame the police unions for constantly asking for a little more slack for officers. I think, historically, it’s a racial issue. So much of the pre-Civil Rights revolution was police keeping down people of color. You gave a lot of slack, mainly because you were part of it. It’s like in Albuquerque (with the killing of mentally ill, homeless man James Boyd): Anytime we see somebody trying to change the status quo, a change in the balance of power, you see authority killing people. I think that’s how we got there.

It’s interesting that you mention the unions, because in Sacramento, Mayor Kevin Johnson called the Ferguson verdict an injustice. Then, the head of the police union here called the mayor out: He said what happened with Darren Wilson, what happened in Ferguson, was justice. And he took this sort of bizarrely out of touch hard line against the mayor.

That is extremely common.

It was so brazen.

Those guys are law and order, right? So, by definition, the decision of the grand jury is the law. So, of course they would be that way. They are not going to step out of their uniforms and say … “Hey, there is something wrong with that. There is something wrong with the procedure that created that verdict.”

Let’s rewind. How common is this Darren Wilson/Michael Brown scenario? People are submitting tons of data to you, you’re getting all kinds of stuff—

I’ve never sat down and tried to analyze it that way. Some of that stuff is impossible to quantify with numbers. But, anecdotally, it’s incredibly common. … You hear about it in the news all the time. Every week—12-year-old kids getting shot because they have a BB gun. Somebody in a Walmart getting shot because they have a BB gun. Somebody getting shot because they have a knife, and they’re 20 feet away, and the officer feels threatened.

Is this often racial?

I think it often is. (Burghart asks to go on hold.) Sorry about that; that was Al-Jazeera. They are going to interview me at 1 p.m.

You’re a go-to guy now when it comes to officer-involved shootings?

Yeah, it’s really common. … I’ll be on CNN again tomorrow. I was in The Washington Post on Monday. I was in The Washington Post on Tuesday. I was on CNN. Yeah, it’s really freaking crazy.

Let’s talk about that. You started this project almost two years ago?

That’s a little bit of a stretch. I kinda had the idea two years ago. That’s when I first realized that there was no national database. I haven’t been researching this for two years, but I was driving home from work one night and … the police had the street blocked off, and I could see that either a cop had died, or a cop had killed somebody. It was just obvious from the stance of the people and the looks on their faces.

I went home, and I was curious: “How often does that happen?” Nevada was what I was really looking at. I couldn’t find the information. … Then, a few months later, there was another high-profile officer-involved homicide. This kid, Gil Collar at the University of South Alabama … he was naked, on drugs and, in my imagination, I imagine he went to get help, and this cop came out, and they danced around a little bit. But this kid ended up dead, shot in the chest, when there is no way to imagine that this kid was a threat.

A naked, unarmed teen freaking out on drugs.

Eighteen years old, about 135 pounds. I just couldn’t believe it. And they let that (officer) off. He didn’t try any less-lethal methods. If he called for backup, that’s not part of the narrative as I know it. I just couldn’t believe it. …

I’m a kid of the Internet—not really a kid, but I’ve been doing it for a long time—and I said, “Well, shit, somebody’s got to do this, and if nobody’s going to do it, but everybody is going to complain about it, I’m just going to build it.” I knew it would be hard. It was never supposed to be anything but a hobby, you know?

Dozens, maybe more, people help you crowdsource data. You’re on The Daily Show. This issue is magnetic. Yet you still aren’t optimistic about meaningful change, because of the power of law enforcement and the unions and the justice system?

Sounds cynical, doesn’t it? When you look over at thousands upon thousands of these things, it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy.

President Obama: He wants more police training, maybe on-body cameras, and he wants the Department of Justice to go in and fix things, right?

That’s what he says.

Let’s talk about putting $1,000 cameras on cops.

How many did they say?

It wasn’t that many, right?

He said 50,000.

Do cameras accomplish anything? What is the good and bad of that?

There are 1.2 million, full- and part-time, sworn and un-sworn law-enforcement officers in the United States. I would have to say 50,000 is not a huge effort. Again, it seems a little like lip service to me. It’s a step in the right direction, like my website is a step in the right direction. It’s just a step. We need reform across the board.

So what does reform look like?

I think it looks like better system oversight—better system oversight boards with teeth. I think it means things like cameras. I think it means things like setting parameters for reactions in certain situations. For example, if an officer says, “I feared for my life,” but the evidence shows there was no weapon—there was no reason to be afraid, but you had the person outgunned, a gun versus nothing—I think we have to question whether that’s a place where deadly force is reasonable.

… The trend in Sacramento seems to be either officer-involved shootings that are gang- or mental-health related. Is that an officer-training thing?

I think it is. I think that is the big untold story in these officer-involved homicides. We recognize that race is a big component. But it’s not the only component. It may be as high as 30 percent of the people killed by police are mentally ill.


Yeah, I know. It’s just unbelievable that we don’t talk about it more. But when you think about it, somebody who is mentally ill is the person most likely to act in a way that would put the officer’s life in jeopardy.

Which cities or states are models when it comes to reform?

It’s too soon to tell that. When I look at what seems to work on the Eastern Seaboard, it seems apparent to me that they are doing things different, but what those things are, I can’t tell you. But I do know, it seems, well, it is worse in the West. And I haven’t even gotten a Southern state done yet. So, there you go.

I looked at all that stuff in Memphis when all that stuff was happening in Albuquerque, and I think they were killing black men at three times the rate they were killing people in Albuquerque. It was stunning.

So, when Obama says, “Eric Holder is coming in; the DOJ is coming in,” is there teeth?

When the feds come in and take over a police department and retrain them, it seems to work. In Albuquerque, in Las Vegas, in Oakland—was it Spokane?—it seems to have a positive effect on the numbers, on the outcomes.

Is this a red state/blue state thing?

I have no idea. I haven’t analyzed it from that point of view. It is really weird that this is kind of a liberal issue. That makes no sense to me at all. From my point of view, oversight and good use of spending money is generally a fiscal issue; it’s a conservative issue. But since everything is politicized…

There’s just not a lot of sympathy for issues that impact poor people and minorities.

You know how you were talking about law enforcement being tone deaf? Republicans, as much as they like to be known as fiscal conservatives, are also law enforcement. They will stand behind law enforcement, right or wrong. That’s the only thing I can figure.

Tell me about some of the media coverage for Fatal Encounters. What are people saying about what you are doing?

Again, far-right and liberal types think it’s great—think the time has come. I can’t tell you how many emails I get on a daily basis from universities that want to help, or where people want to use our data for whatever project they want. And we share it. I’m the editor of a newspaper in Reno who is on The Daily Show. It’s been amazing. It just blows me away.

You caught lightning in a bottle with Fatal Encounters. This became the issue of the year, and you were there already with actually data and knowledge, something already up and running.

I still have hopes that a big, non-governmental agency—a university, a think tank, a nonprofit, something besides the government—will pick this job up and carry it through to the end zone.

Do you think there is a high probability of that happening now?

Hmm, no. Because we’re doing too good of a job, to be honest. I formed a 501(c)(3) on it, and we’re eligible to apply for grants. It just keeps plugging away. It’s a manageable amount of work; it’s still just a hobby. There’s no profit in it. And I just can’t imagine those big networks or big newspapers—they’ll be on to the next thing as soon as the fire trucks go home.

Sure, just look at Ebola.

No, we’re done with Ebola. I’ve seen this in Fullerton, where they beat (homeless man) Kelly Thomas to death. He was mentally ill. The homeless guy in Albuquerque that got on camera; they killed him over camping. They had riots there, not on the level of Ferguson. Each time, it seems like it goes a little higher, like it’s a little more, the reaction is a little more violent. It worries me.

Let’s put it that way: The reactions across the country seem to be increasing, and the only way that those are going to calm down is that real reform happens.

So, the cameras go away; this all dies down; you keep plugging away at your project. What’s your timeline?

It depends on how much funding we get. We’ve calculated we could get a comprehensive database in two years with two full-time people.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here.

It feels like we said everything. Honestly, I’m so tired of talking about this.


I’m the Editor of the Reno News & Review. This thing is just a hobby, but if I don’t talk, then nobody talks. I didn’t do this because I have any interest in police brutality. I just thought it needs to exist, so if I don’t talk when people want to talk, I feel like I’m avoiding my responsibility, not living up to what I set out to do or something. So I just keep talking.

Visit Fatal Encounters at This story originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review. View The Daily Show With Jon Stewart story here.

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