Cover Story: Unanswered: CL's metro Atlanta officer-involved shooting database

Data on deaths caused by police officers should be easy to find. If someone wants to know how many officers fired their weapons at citizens, there should be a place to look at that information, whether it’s for a single department like DeKalb County Police, a collection of departments in a county like Fulton, a metro region, or an entire state.

But it’s rarely that easy. That’s because the Federal Bureau of Investigation allows local police departments to submit data voluntarily on deaths caused by police officers. How many participate? By USA Today’s account last August, only 750 of the country’s approximately 17,000 law enforcement agencies — less than five percent — provided the data to the FBI.

This year large media outlets such as the Washington Post have tried to track the number of police deaths across the nation in the absence of federal requirements. The Guardian launched a new database this month to keeps tabs on all officer-involved deaths in the United States.

Both of the publications’ efforts follow crowd-sourced databases such as Fatal Encounters, a nonprofit effort attempting to create a database of all officer-involved killings since January 2000, and Homicide Watch, a website that tracks all murders in Washington, D.C.

“It may not fix police violence in any way,” says D. Brian Burghart, editor and publisher of the Reno News & Review and founder of Fatal Encounters. “But at least now we can look at it and quantify the problem.”

As Burghart notes, there’s a growing call for the establishment of a national database of officer-involved deaths to know who’s dying and what led to their deaths. Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey last week introduced a bill to require all states to turn in police killings reports to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The first step in fixing a problem is understanding the extent of the problem you have. Justice and accountability go hand in hand,” Booker said in a statement. “But without reliable data it’s difficult to hold people accountable or create effective policies that change the status quo.”

Who knows when, or if, that bill will make it to President Barack Obama’s desk. A similar bill in Georgia received next to no attention during the 2015 legislative session. As a result, Atlantans will continue to know little about the details, or more simply, just the number, of police shootings in the metro region.

Over the past month, I filed open records requests with 55 law enforcement agencies in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties, asking for two numbers: fatal officer-involved shootings and non-fatal officer-involved shootings since 2010. The full list of departments, ranging from larger ones such as Atlanta’s 2,000-officer force to Brookhaven’s 63-officer force, can be seen in the spreadsheet above.

The responsiveness of the police agencies varied. The Marietta Police Department responded within 29 minutes of receiving my request. Most agencies fulfilled the request within a few days’ time in accordance with state law. A few agencies took weeks: Cobb Police required three weeks, plus about a dozen follow-ups via email and phone, before it handed over its data. Two agencies, the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office and Lithonia Police Department, failed to respond before this story published.

CL has created this database to make local police shooting information readily available. The information in the spreadsheet above is a starting point for understanding the scope of metro Atlanta’s police shootings. With those numbers in hand, I intend to continue working on filling out the database so we can better understand how age, race, gender, and other factors play a role in these shootings. New shootings will be added over time. We’ll also be going back to find information from older underreported cases to further improve the data.

To make this public database useful, it’ll require the help of the public. Do you, fellow concerned citizen, have information on a particular shooting death or injury that could improve this database? Or do you, metro Atlanta police public information officer, want to proactively help submit your data for the world to see? We encourage you to submit information via the submission button below. Feel free to send an email or contact me on Twitter with any questions, suggestions, or concerns.

— Max Blau

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