The numbers of police-related deaths in the United States, as documented by Fatal Encounters, have been eerily similar in recent years.
However, this statistical fluke is not what’s newsworthy: What is newsworthy is the fact that we now actually have a database of police-related deaths.
That’s right: Before Fatal Encounters came along, there was not a comprehensive database of all of the people in the United States who died during encounters with law enforcement.
By the time the Fatal Encounters effort is complete, it will include a database going back to the year 2000. As of this writing, the Fatal Encounters team has already “finished” 27 states—including California, which was finished in May. Data for the last 3 1/2 years is complete nationwide
The numbers and details contained in the Fatal Encounters database can be chilling. In 2015, of the 1,356 people who died during law-enforcement encounters in the nation, 263 of them were in the state of California. Going back to 2000, at least 48 people have died during law-enforcement efforts in the Coachella Valley alone. (See the list at the bottom of this article.)
Fatal Encounters is the brainchild of D. Brian Burghart, the longtime editor of the Reno News & Review, the alternative newsweekly in Reno, Nev. (Burghart has been a friend and colleague of mine for 20 years—going all the way back to my internship at the News & Review during the summer of 1996.)
At FatalEncounters.org, Burghart explained how the project came to be.
“May 18, 2012: I was on my way home from work when I noticed a bunch of cop cars down by the Truckee River,” Burghart writes. “… It turned out the police had pulled over a stolen car, and they’d shot and killed the driver. (Jace Herndon, 41, we found out later.) Honestly—and not because I’m one of those hard-boiled, cynical types—I wasn’t particularly surprised or offended. Criminals often come to a bad end.
“But again, I’m an editor, so I noticed when a gaping hole appeared in every single news story I read about the incident. There was no context. I kept looking for a sentence that said something like, ‘This was x person killed by police in Washoe County this year.’
“But it was never there.”
It was never there, Burghart learned, because no such database exists. Therefore, Burghart (who stepped down from the Reno News & Review earlier this year) decided to create one—using Google, news coverage, existing databases and public-records requests—going all the way back to the start of the century.
It’s safe to say Burghart had no idea what he was getting into. However, after a grant or two, a successful crowd-sourcing funding effort, tons of media coverage and a whole lot of work by Burghart and his volunteer-and-paid team, Burghart’s goal is in sight.
“When we say (a state or year) is complete, we’ve exhausted all the means at our disposal—but there are always lawsuits that will bring one that never made the press,” Burghart told me.
“Even when we get everything that we can find, I know we’re still missing stuff,” Burghart said. “… It’s just because of the peculiar ways the media choose to report this stuff. You’d think that they would say, ‘An officer shot and killed somebody’—something simple—but instead, they say, ‘An officer-involved shooting occurred. It’s crazy.”
Still, Burghart said, he’s happy with how accurate and comprehensive the database seems to be.
“I have yet to have a journalist … point out one we missed,” he said. “We’ve had grad students, not members of our team, who did an analysis using public-records requests and found that we were at 100 percent. While I know it’s not true (that we’re at 100 percent), that’s what they found.”
Burghart said his team has faced a lot of challenges finding information, especially the older info.
“We think of the Internet in 2000 as a mature thing,” he said. “But until 2005 to 2006, a lot of stuff—basically, until the advent of the cloud storage—just got purged from files. People regularly purged their older stuff, because data storage was expensive.”
Fatal Encounters—due to the extra attention given to police-related killings in places like Ferguson, Mo., in recent years—has received a lot of media coverage. This attention helped attract people like Carla DeCeros to the Fatal Encounters effort. She’s the person who is responsible for compiling a lion’s share of the California database.
“I was already researching this topic before linking up with Fatal Encounters,” DeCeros said via email. “My reasons for doing so were probably similar to those of Brian and others who’ve done this sort of work. Mainly, I wanted answers, but they just didn’t exist.
“To get answers, I realized I’d have to take several steps back and do a lot of info-gathering. Fortunately, there were others—past and present—who’d done at least some of the work already. What I was doing was building on these earlier efforts, connecting them and filling in the blanks.”
All of this, however, leads to a big question: Why hadn’t someone, like the government, been keeping track of these fatal encounters? Burghart said he has several theories.
“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.”
Now that there is a comprehensive database of police-involved killings that is available to all, the real work can begin: People can examine the details, crunch the numbers and figure out how to perhaps decrease the alarming number of deaths.
That’s where Nick Selby comes in. He’s a law-enforcement officer as well as a consultant, writer and speaker on law-enforcement data and technology. He’s also the CEO and co-founder of StreetCred Software, Inc.
“Fatal Encounters is quite simply the database that is the most complete, the most accurate, and the most contextually complete,” Selby said. “By that, what I mean is in addition to things like name, and time, and gender, we also get some indication of what the person was doing at the time the police showed up, which is really important.”
Using Fatal Encounters data, Selby has come to some conclusions that may have major public-policy implications. He looked at a subset of fatal encounters cases—specifically, unarmed people who were killed in 2015.
“What we found was that about 7 percent were unjustified,” he said. “… If I tell you that there are 153 people who were killed by police, and they were unarmed, how many would you think would be unjustified? (Law enforcement officers) would probably tell you two or three. If you ask an activist the same thing, they’d probably tell you 30 or 40. They’re both wrong. That’s important. I thank (Fatal Encounters) for the ability to actually do that analysis.
“The biggest predictor (of fatal encounters with police) is poverty, not race—but the biggest predictor of poverty turns out to be race,” Selby said. “That’s not a police problem; that’s an American societal problem. That’s a federal, state and local policy problem.”
Selby has uncovered some fascinating trends using data: “If you take a look at just people who are suffering from mental illness—either diagnosed or apparent—disability, and drug addiction, or some combination of those three, that’s 52 percent of the people who died last year” during encounters with law enforcement.
Thanks to this information, Selby pointed to several programs that he thinks should be emulated around the country.
“No one is bringing attention to the fact that Richmond, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., and Chicago are doing these wonderful intervention-based programs on gun violence, where they identify—through social networks and other means—people at risk of being involved in gun violence, and speak to them and ask them to attend meetings. They’re cutting down their murder rate, and they’re cutting down their gun-violence rate.”
Selby also said society needs to do a better job of dealing with mental illness. Some Fatal Encounters data analyses have indicated that 25 to 30 percent of people who are killed by law enforcement are suffering from mental illness.
“Why are we not moving to do better intervention-based programs instead of waiting until there’s a mental-health crisis?” Selby asked.
In the months and years to come, Fatal Encounters’ data, once complete, will no doubt lead to other conclusions that could help inform public policy. Burghart said that he had been hoping to finish the databases of the other 23 states by the end of the year.
“Well, that was the plan earlier this year, before the whole Guardian and Washington Post thing happened,” he said.
Burghart is referring to the fact that both the Guardian and the Washington Post have created their own databases of law-enforcement-related deaths. In fact, the Post earlier this year won a Pulitzer Prize for its database—after getting the idea from Fatal Encounters, a fact that Burghart documented in an excellent piece at Gawker.com on April 26. (While the Post tipped its figurative hat to Fatal Encounters when it started its efforts, credit was nowhere to be found when the Pulitzer was awarded. In fact, both the Post and the Pulitzer citation made claims about the Post’s database being the “first” and “only” one to accomplish certain things that Fatal Encounters had accomplished well before.)
Neither the Guardian nor Post databases are going back in time to collect anywhere near 17 years of data like Fatal Encounters is, and Burghart said it’s been harder to attract help to Fatal Encounters since the Post won the award.
“It undermines the idea that this is needed, because people now believe that the media’s on top of it—although I can tell you by looking that they’re not,” Burghart said
When Fatal Encounters is complete, most likely next year, the database will include details on more well more than 20,000 police-related deaths. What’s next?
“When we have a comprehensive database going back to Jan. 1, 2000—I’ll make a decision then,” he said. “We’ve actually been asked by people in other countries to help them set up something.
“I have a lot of ideas. There are a lot of databases that should exist in this country to show the numbers behind things. There should be a database of people who die in prison and in jail. That doesn’t exist. … It’s mind-boggling that these aren’t tracked.”
Coachella Valley’s Fatal Encounters Since 2000
Stephan McEwan, 33, April 13, 2000, Palm Springs. McEwan was killed after his motorcycle crashed into a van while leading police on a brief pursuit.
Jesus-Pena “Jesse” Herrara, 32, Feb. 1, 2002, Indio. District Attorney Investigator Dan Riter shot Herrara in the head at close range.
Raymond Deleon, 36, Dec. 26, 2002, Desert Hot Springs. Two officers shot and killed Deleon; officers said Deleon tried to hit them with his car and wouldn’t show his hands.
Antonio Gastelum Sanchez, 34, Jan. 23, 2003, La Quinta. Sanchez died shortly after struggling with deputies.
Kevin W. Diabo, 24, May 13, 2003, La Quinta. Deputy Robert Burbach shot and killed Diabo after Diabo killed Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Lee and swung a baton at Burbach.
Name withheld by police, June 16, 2003, Thousand Palms. A female passenger in an uninvolved car was killed by a car fleeing deputies.
Michael Sanchez, 26, and Delonn Arenas, Nov. 21, 2003, Desert Hot Springs. Arenas died after a car fleeing deputies struck the Honda in which Arenas was riding. The passenger in the fleeing car, Sanchez, reportedly died of cardiac arrest after a foot chase and struggle with deputies.
Omar Mendiola, 22, Feb. 17, 2004, Thermal. A California Highway Patrol officer shot and killed Mendiola after an altercation on the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation.
Lawrence Christopher Phillips, 26, Sept. 2, 2004, Palm Springs. Officer Don Benstead shot Phillips when he pulled a gun on the officer’s partner.
Scott R. Neth, 35, Jan. 16, 2005, Thousand Palms. Neth died when he crashed his car while fleeing the CHP.
Rodolfo Inzunza-Sanchez, 23, March 5, 2005, Thousand Palms. Deputies shot Inzunza-Sanchez when he allegedly refused to drop a handgun and a knife.
Israel Ruiz Hernandez, 30, June 10, 2005, La Quinta. Two deputies shot and killed Hernandez when he allegedly pointed a gun after they confronted him behind Big 5 Sporting Goods.
Julio Cesar Prado-Franco, 18, June 12, 2005, Indio. Prado-Franco was killed when he lost control of his SUV and slammed into a pole while fleeing police.
Joel Soto Campaña, 35, Aug. 11, 2005, Indio. An officer shot and killed Campaña when he allegedly physically confronted the officer, who was responding to a report of a domestic disturbance.
Fred Ray Bradley Jr., 29, Nov. 15, 2005, Palm Springs. Bradley was killed in a car crash during a brief police chase.
Merle Vernon Houston, 40, Jan. 5, 2006, Palm Springs. Police shot Houston when he grabbed an officer’s gun during a confrontation in front of Walmart.
Carlos Romero-Avena, 34, March 24, 2006, Coachella. A CHP officer shot and killed Romero-Avena when he took the officer’s baton after a pursuit.
Leonel Lopez Ramirez, 35, Aug. 1, 2006, Indio/Coachella. Deputies shot Ramirez when he threatened them with a replica firearm and a paintball gun.
Thomas Sharp, 49, Nov. 4, 2006, Cathedral City. Sharp reportedly shot himself during a police standoff.
Jorge Alberto Martinez, 64, March 19, 2007, Thermal. Martinez was killed in a head-on collision with Deputy Manuel Viegas, who was also killed.
Roberto Perez, 25, April 11, 2007, Indio. Two officers shot Perez after they responded to a family dispute in Indio.
Sergio “Checko” Lopez, 48, Oct. 2, 2007, Desert Hot Springs. Sgt. Robert Ritchie shot Lopez, who residents of a nearby homeless camp said was known as “Checko,” four times when Lopez continued to come toward the officer.
Nino Joseph Garcia Jr., 24, Jan. 15, 2008, Palm Springs. Police shot and killed Garcia when he pulled a weapon on officers.
Alexis Melendrez-Acosta, 18, May 30, 2008, Desert Hot Springs. CHP officers shot Melendrez-Acosta when he shot at them during a pursuit.
Gregory Fisher, 56, June 3, 2009, Rancho Mirage. Fisher was a passenger killed in a crash during a high-speed chase.
Robert Albert Appel, 48, May 14, 2010, Palm Desert. Appel died after struggling with deputies Martin Alfaro, Robert Garcia, Sean Dusek and Edward Chacon while he was in the midst of a delusional episode inside a gated community.
Jesus Juan “Chapo” Hernandez-Cazares, 21, Sept. 19, 2010, Cathedral City. An officer shot Hernandez-Cazares twice during a confrontation.
John Howe Jr., 57, Dec. 27, 2010, Desert Hot Springs. Howe, a pedestrian, was struck and killed by a police car.
Francisco Gabriel Durazo, 31, April 17, 2011, Palm Springs. Police had been chasing Durazo for a parole violation; police said he also led them on a chase March 18 in a stolen vehicle. Police and Durazo exchanged shots, and officers unleashed police dog Ike on Durazo, but he shot the dog to death before being killed himself.
Ricardo Avila, 37, June 11, 2011, Indio. Avila was a passenger who died on June 20 from injuries sustained when he jumped from a stolen sedan during a pursuit.
William Scott Routh, 47, Aug. 20, 2011, Cathedral City. Routh began experiencing labored breathing and later died after he struggled with officers.
Pascual Manuel Mata, 59, Oct. 21, 2011, Coachella. SWAT officer Gustavo “Gus” Araiza shot Mata when he opened fire on officers during a 25-hour standoff.
Frank Tanuvasa, 20, Feb. 23, 2012, Palm Desert. Tanuvasa was seen running away from an apartment complex where a burglary was reported. Tanuvasa was shot following a fight with a sheriff’s deputy.
Robert Shirar, 32, May 21, 2012, Indio. After crashing his vehicle on Interstate 10, Shirar threatened investigating CHP officers. They shot and killed him.
Karl Watson, 47, June 25, 2012, Indio. Police shot and killed Watson as he reportedly beat an officer who arrived at the scene after Watson murdered his ex-girlfriend.
Joshua Sznaider, 27, Oct. 6, 2012, Palm Springs. Police were called out at 7 a.m. as Sznaider created a neighborhood disturbance. He was Tasered twice and put in a chokehold as he resisted arrest. He died four days later of cardiac arrest.
Allan DeVillena II, 22, Nov. 10, 2012, Palm Springs. Officers fatally shot DeVillena after the unarmed Marine allegedly drunkenly drove his car at the officers. Despite conflicting witness statements, the district attorney declined to file charges against the officers.
Alejandro Rendon, 23, Feb. 14, 2013, Indio. Rendon, 23 was shot by Indio Officer Alex Franco after he and his partner attempted to stop the suspect while he was riding his bicycle. Franco claimed the suspect was facing him down over the hood of the police vehicle and could have been armed. Experts later testified that Rendon’s wounds showed he was shot from behind and below. The family of Rendon was awarded $1.9 million.
Ernest Foster, 37, July 4, 2013, Indio. Foster was shot and killed by an Indio police officer; authorities said he was armed, and when police confronted him, he ran away. A pursuit on foot led to a confrontation, when the officer opened fire.
Eulizez Rodriguez, 24, Aug. 22, 2013, Desert Hot Springs. Rodriguez was killed after officers pursued him for driving a stolen car. After a short foot chase, an officer shot Rodriguez after he pulled out a gun.
Luis Morin, 39, Jan. 27, 2014, Coachella. Morin, wanted on two nonviolent felony warrants, was visiting relatives. When Morin and his relatives returned home from dinner, a deputy attempted to arrest the unarmed Morin; a scuffle ensued, ending with the deputy shooting and killing Morin. A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed against Riverside County.
Jesus Zuriel Orduno Luviano, 20, Nov. 2, 2014, Indio. The California Highway Patrol attempted to pull over a drunk driver. When the suspect didn’t stop, Indio police joined the chase. Luviano exited the vehicle, allegedly with a shotgun, and was shot.
Omar Rodriguez, 35, Dec. 25, 2014, Coachella. A deputy was in the area responding to a report of a “suspicious person.” Rodriguez allegedly tried to take the deputy’s baton, and was shot and killed.
Dario Colin, 33, Feb. 6, 2015, Palm Desert. Colin was killed in a crash while fleeing the CHP.
Samuel Villarreal, 18, Oct. 14, 2015, Indio. Officers were investigating an auto theft and attempted to stop Villarreal after he drove a stolen car into a parking lot. Police opened fire after Villarreal allegedly backed his car into a police cruiser.
Dominic Hutchinson, 30, Oct. 24, 2015, Cathedral City. Hutchinson was shot by officers responding to a domestic disturbance.
Juan Perez, 38, Dec. 5, 2015, Indio. Police, investigating a stolen golf cart, approached Perez, and shots were exchanged. Perez was shot and killed.
Source: Fatal Encounters