Shop Notes

An inside look at Fatal Force series

Posted: July 15, 2016 | Tags: police, social justice, Workshop news

Washington Post analysis by William Wan and Kimberly Kindy:

The hail of gunfire from one shooter and its latest casualties — three killed, three injured on Sunday in Baton Rouge — ratcheted up fears among law enforcement nationwide and brought the number of officers shot and killed in the line of duty to 30 this year, nearly double the toll at this time last year.

Our recently published “Fatal Force: Two years after Ferguson, police shootings up,” a project with The Washington Post, is an extension of the Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series illuminating officer-involved shootings in the United States during 2015, as well as the first follow-up piece the Post published in 2016 that sought to find out how police departments handle releasing the names of officers who use fatal force. 

Among the key findings: The number of fatal shootings by officers increased from 465 in the first six months of last year to 491 for the same period this year. This year also saw more officers shot and killed in the line of duty and more officers prosecuted for questionable shootings.

I was involved in the effort to contact hundreds of police departments and file Freedom of Information Act requests to gather the names of officers involved in fatal shootings. 

It was interesting to see the different barriers that states and communities erect in an effort to limit the release of names, and yet, at the opposite end of the spectrum, some departments' attempts to be as transparent as possible and release the names of the officers in as little as 48 hours after an incident. One of the most varied states was Texas; police departments miles apart had radically different policies for releasing names.

For this story, we took an extra step: We notified officers who fired shots in 2016 shootings that the newspaper and website would publish their names. 

I and several other students interning at the Workshop called police departments across the country to speak with either the public information officer or chief of police about their willingness to pass along a message to the officer and ask whether he or she would speak to us about what it was like to use force while on duty. 

Many departments said their officers could not do an interview because of pending investigations or grand jury trials. Very few officers expressed any interest in speaking with the Post, and by the time of publication, none had come forward. 

The workflow for this project was managed on a database so reporters could track the contact information and contact attempts at each department for each officer. Afterward, an administrator was able to go through and check the contact notes to make sure each officer had been properly notified. 

I verified the information with an editor and ended up working with a team one final day to contact an additional 45 officers. 

The full story and additional graphics and photos are on Post's website.

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