Data is fundamental to The Washington Post’s “Unaccountable” series

With the help of a database they’ve built over seven years, the investigative team discovers a tragic trend among police-involved shootings

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Damian Daniels had three encounters with the local police during the last 48 hours of his life. The Army veteran was in his home in August 2020, amid a mental health crisis, when his brother — 800 miles away in Colorado — called the Red Cross for help. The agency, in turn, called 9-1-1, and police officers were dispatched for a welfare check that turned deadly, culminating in an officer shooting Daniels twice, killing him.

Tragedies like this — when a person in the throes of a mental health crisis is shot and killed by police officers — aren’t rare. Washington Post reporters Jon Gerberg and Alice Li found 178 similar cases over the course of three years. They wrote about Daniel’s death in “When a call to the police for help turns deadly,” part of the Washington Post’s “Unaccountable” investigative series — a deep dive into how the police serve the communities they’re tasked to protect.

Jon Gerberg is a senior video journalist for the Washington Post and a member of the investigative team. He's been with the news organization since 2017, and before that, he reported for The New York Times, the Associated Press, TIME, and worked as a foreign affairs producer for “PBS NewsHour.”  

As the database editor for the investigations unit at the Washington Post, Steven Rich knows data and how integral it is to investigative stories. Rich and Gerberg were E&P Publisher Mike Blinder's guests on E&P Reports 149th episode. They were joined by E&P contributor Gretchen A. Peck for a conversation about data and the “Unaccountable” series.

“I got the job here at The Post through an internship,” Rich recalled during the vodcast. “I turned that internship into a second internship and into a job. At the time, there was not as much data capacity at The Post. They sort of needed me, and I was focused largely on large investigative projects.”

Though the term “data journalism” may be relatively recent on the news-evolution timeline, the practice is hardly novel. “Data journalism has kind of been under the surface for a very long time,” Rich said, citing Ida B. Wells as an example, who in effect collected data about lynchings in the south.

Rich sees data as a way to offer larger context to otherwise anecdotal stories. “My job is to take your anecdotes and to tell you how often they happen,” he said.

For roughly seven years, The Post’s data team has been building a publicly available database of police shootings across the country, populating it, mining it, and gleaning patterns and revelations to inform their reporting.

For example, they track the number and location of police-involved shootings, whether the victim was armed, and where it took place — for instance, in a private home versus in a public setting. They also seek insight into why the police are on the scene at all — if a call to 9-1-1 was the only option for help. 

The investigative team knew that Damian Daniel’s death was not unique. They knew of other high-profile incidents when the police were called to help people in mental crisis, only to kill them during the course of that interaction. They cited Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York and Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia.

“But we wanted to know how often this is actually happening, and that’s where we turn to colleagues like Steven, who have actually been compiling this database,” he added.

With the help of a team of journalism students from American University, The Post’s investigative team could look at approximately 1,000 police shooting cases and drill down to those for which mental health was a suspected or known factor.

They found 178 such occurrences, representing victims of all ages, races and genders.

There were some things the data didn't reveal, which required the investigative team to find answers in other ways. For example, the database doesn't currently track officers' disciplinary records or suspensions, whether they were involved in prior similar incidents, or whether they've been violent outside of the job.

“My approach to data journalism is and has always been as a way to take a great story and make it excellent,” Rich said.

“The most important part of data journalism is the journalism itself. … It’s one thing to collect data, but you have to actually extract the meaning out of it,” Rich suggested.

The “Fatal Force” database continues to inform the investigative team’s reporting. “It’s kind of a gift that keeps on giving, from a storytelling and reporting perspective,” Gerberg told Blinder and Peck.

"Data really is the fundamental spine of our reporting because why are we telling these stories if they do not tell us something about the world in which we live? I would just add that if you kind of take the inverse of that, if you only have the data and are never taking stories out of that, what does it mean in the first place? I think a crucial part of our job is to take that data and identify those trends, but also work to really illuminate and understand what kind of consequences these trends are having in the lives of everyday people,” Gerberg concluded.

The team’s reporting of this story inspired change in Bexar County, Texas. “Bexar County had a mental-health response unit within its own police department,” Gerberg explained. “The problem was, Mr. Daniels was actually in the jurisdiction of the Bear County Sheriff’s, rather than the [San Antonio Police Department] — so, a different jurisdiction. But since Mr. Daniel’s killing, the judge there has implemented a secondary program to increase mental health options for the rest of the county, as well.”

 

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