the counted project

We’re the Guardian reporters behind The Counted, a project to chronicle every person killed by police in the US. We’re here to answer your questions about police and social justice in America. AUA.

Hello,

We’re Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, reporters for The Guardian covering policing and social justice.

A couple months ago, we launched a project called The Counted (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database) to chronicle every person killed by police in the US in 2015 – with the internet’s help. Since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO nearly a year ago— it’s become abundantly clear that the data kept by the federal government on police killings is inadequate. This project is intended to help fill some of that void, and give people a transparent and comprehensive database for looking at the issue of fatal police violence.

The Counted has just reached its halfway point. By our count the number of people killed by police in the US this has reached 545 as of June 29, 2015 and is on track to hit 1,100 by year’s end. Here’s some of what we’ve learned so far: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/01/us-police-killings-this-year-black-americans

You can read some more of our work for The Counted here: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killings

And if you want to help us keep count, send tips about police killings in 2015 to www.theguardian.com/tips, follow on Twitter @TheCounted, or join the Facebook community www.facebook.com/TheCounted.

We are here to answer your questions about policing and police killings in America, social justice and The Counted project. Ask away.

Have you encountered any police who support your cause? If so what did they say/do?

[Jon Swaine] Jim Bueermann, the head of the Police Foundation and a former police chief, supports better collection of data on these incidents. He and I were among the guests on KCRW’s To The Point last month, and his answers are well worth listening to: http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/to-the-point/documenting-officer-involved-shootings

How exactly do you define a police killing? For example, would you count a suspect being accidentally killed in a car chase?

[Jamiles Lartey] For our database we have defined a “police killing” as any incident where the actions of a sworn police officer can be reasonably be understood to have been the cause, or a primary cause of a person’s death. This means that someone struck with a vehicle in an accident with a police cruiser would be counted. We would not count, for example, someone who was running from police and was struck by a civilian vehicle and killed.

I remind people as often as I can, that we are “counting” without making a value judgement. We don’t include accidents because we are trying to report big numbers, or because trying to imply some wrongdoing– but so that we have complete information, and that at the end of the year we can say X number of people were killed by law enforcement this way or that way. If– and I stress this is entirely hypothetical– we found some large percentage of police vehicles that hit civilians and killed them were speeding or driving without sirens or something like that– it would be a useful uncovery.

Have you seen any interest from government agencies like the Bureau of Justice Statistics in either collaborating with you or learning from your methodology?

[Jamiles Lartey] The BJS used to keep this information, as a matter of fact, but stopped counting at some point when it became clear just how profoundly the reports were undercounting. The FBI and the CDC also keep some numbers tied to law-enforcement related deaths, but none are comprehensive enough to be particularly useful. But no, as of yet, no federal agency has reached out for a collaboration.

What has the biggest challenge been in doing research for The Counted?

[Jamiles Lartey] The biggest challenge is simply the scale of the project and the fact that we have to piece this puzzle together from states and local jurisdictions with wildly different protocols on what information they release and how.

Thoughts on the WashPost’s similar investigation?

[Jamiles Lartey] Obviously we’ve been working on this project because we believe this is an important issue and deserves more reporting and more conversation. In that vein, having as many outlets as possible reporting on the issue can only be a good thing, and especially one with a reputation and a reach like The Washington Post. I think when you look at the similarities in our findings, it only strengthens each other’s work.

We are using different methodologies, metrics and the projects are definitely not identical– but two respected news organizations maintaining publicly accessible databases on a hotly contested issue is great for national dialogue and for news consumers.

Where do you get your information that someone has been killed by the police? How do you know it is accurate?

[Jon Swaine] It comes from a mixture of sources. Since we launched the project on 1 June, the biggest source of information has been readers sending us messages via email or the submission form on our site –www.theguardian.com/thecounted/tips – with links to local media reports about deaths in their area. Several family members of people who were killed have been in contact to provide information about what happened to their relatives.

Our reporters then verify this information via police officials and public records, and create a new entry in our database if appropriate.

We also monitor social media for mentions by residents and local reporters about fatalities involving police. People tend to use similar phrases when talking about them. Again, once we have these tips we will pursue confirmation through traditional routes.

Some cases have been more difficult to report than others. We identified five people who had never been publicly named by local authorities and media http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/03/counted-police-killing-victims-unnamed-texas-california Their details came from public records requests and inquiries to coroners and police departments.

Before launching we were aided greatly by the work of crowd-sourced databases such as KilledByPolice.net. We have different criteria, and our database contains a different total and omits some cases counted by KBP. But they were an invaluable pointer towards cases that had already happened when we started counting.

We’ve written an explanation of where our information comes from here: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/about-the-counted

It would be interesting to learn what types of data you are collecting, and how you might be able to categorize the results (such as # men, # women, # killings considered justified by cops, # killings considered justified by society (and how on earth do you measure that?), etc.

[Jon Swaine] We are collecting a detailed series of data including those categories you mention and more: age, gender, race/ethnicity, precise location, whether the person was armed, and several others that we aren’t quite ready to publish yet. You can actually sort the data using these fields and download the data set from our site –http://www.theguardian.com/thecounted – to use and experiment with.

The smart people at FiveThirtyEight used the data and wrote a fascinating analysis on what the location data tells us about where people are killed by law enforcement: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/where-police-have-killed-americans-in-2015/

And Josh Begley, a brilliant data artist, used the location data and Google Earth to visualise the places where the incidents happened: https://joshbegley.com/seeing-police-violence/

In terms of justification, we are keeping track on the official investigations into the incidents and whether they were ruled justified or worthy of prosecution. You can see this in the “STATUS” section of each card in the database.

Will you be including police officers killed or injured by perpetrators to give perspective on the actual threat to an officer vs perceived threat? Also, what about how many of those killed by police officers actually had a weapon on them?

[Jon Swaine] We’ve taken care to include whether or not the person killed was armed as one of our key data points. You can sort the database with this field www.theguardian.com/thecounted.

We agree there should be more comprehensive data on police officers killed in the line of duty as well, but that’s not our particular project at the moment. As my colleague Gary Younge wrote on this subject: “[T]he internet is a big place. Have at it. Any kind of counting that fills a void, enriches debate and focuses attention on an important issue should be supported.” http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2015/jun/01/the-counted-keeping-count-police

How often do you think those killings were necessary?

[Jon Swaine] We aren’t offering any judgment on whether these actions were necessary or unnecessary. The objective is to record every fatal incident and explain what happened, so that people (and police, and policymakers) can better appreciate the scale of what is happening. Because there is no comprehensive government database, this seems impossible at present.

However if you look through the database you will see that as well as questionable incidents involving unarmed people, there are many in which the person killed was armed and acting violently towards officers in their final moments. We are going to include all of them for your consideration.

Are you really getting that “twice the rate of white and Hispanic or Latino people” figure from comparing the percentage of population to the percentage of those killed? Wouldn’t a more realistic figure compare percentage killed to the percentage of black people who have had police encounters? It is a known fact that the socioeconomic hole that the black population found themselves in after finally obtaining civil equality in America is the number one contributor to the fact that they lead in police encounter per population in America. I would hope your research for that article would take that into account by putting the number of police killings of black people over the total number of police encounters.

[Jamiles Lartey] Well you’re not wrong, but neither is what we have suggested in our report. We have simply stated, as a matter of fact, that relative to racial/ethnic breakdown of the US Census, that black Americans are killed disproportionately.

Some people will inevitably attribute this to individually racist police, others to systematically racist policing, others to excessive criminality in black communities, some to poverty, ad infinitum… Our report is not making a causal claim, but is plainly stating what has happened through 6 months this year. There may be (and likely are) countless reasons for why these numbers are they way they are– and we will certainly be looking at new lenses through which to interpret the data as we move forward.

I noticed the use of the word “allegedly” quite frequently when discussing the events that occurred. “Zane allegedly shot and wounded a sheriff’s deputy during a routine traffic stop.” After a final report is issued by the local police force do you plan to change the wording to show actual evidence of self defense on behalf of the police, or do you intend to continue to try and show the dead in as innocent light as possible? I would like to point out Jeremy Lett. The shooting was ruled justified, but the word allegedly still remains.

[Jamiles Lartey] We abide by the same ethical standards for The Counted that we would for any other news reporting. A final police report, is not, in and of itself, verified proof of the exact events of an incident. And it is also not a substitute for adjudicating a case in a court of law. We are however, always open to being presented with more information about a case, for example video, multiple wittinesses, etc, which would allow us to speak more concretely about reported events.

If news broke out that a certain celebrity was living a second life as a Batman-esque vigilante of justice by night and was getting away with it for years, who would surprise you the least?

[Jon Swaine] John Legend. He seems like a really good guy.

[Jamiles Lartey] Michelle Rodriguez… think about it…

[Oliver Laughland] Christian Bale, for obvious reasons…

In my opinion, the single most absurd thing that I see on the news about police killings is the use of “unarmed” to describe a suspect who was killed while struggling with police (Mike Brown is the perfect example). An unarmed person can become armed very quickly if they gain the upper hand in a physical struggle with law enforcement. I notice in the article linked above, you are compiling statistics on the percentage of those killed who were “unarmed.” My question is do you see an issue with the way that you’re presenting that data, given your claim that you’re simply trying to record data without offering judgment?

[Jon Swaine] We think that “armed” is commonly accepted to mean someone carrying a weapon. We have included various categories of weapon such as firearms, knives and others.

Where there was a struggle that did not involve weapons, we have always tried to detail this in the summary of what happened on each card in the database.

One such example was William Chapman in Portsmouth, Virginia, in April: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#william-chapman-ii-345

Have you ever thought about your role as a foreigner critiquing a society that’s not your own? Do you ever get letters telling you to stop working on American issues and go write about British social issues? Do you ever feel conflicted about casting judgments on a people that have had a different cultural experience from you? Do you feel like you can understand the social justice issues in America as well as thoughtful Americans?

[Jon Swaine] The team who worked on the project – listed at the bottom of our FAQ page http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/about-the-counted – has a mixture of backgrounds. Ten are American, seven are British, one is Australian and one is French-Canadian.

I am one of the Britons. I have lived in the US for almost five years. I think frequently about my role as a foreigner reporting on this country and work hard to understand the cultural differences. I actually don’t receive letters like those you describe. But I have no doubt that my American colleagues understand social justice issues here better than I do, and their input in the team is invaluable.

In this project we are reporting on things that happened to people rather than casting judgments on people.

Do you have any comparative information, preliminary or otherwise, that might show how our police rank on killing of citizens versus other nations?

[Oliver Laughland] Jamiles wrote a fantastic piece on that very subject a few weeks ago: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/09/the-counted-police-killings-us-vs-other-countries

Here are just a couple of the stats he pulled out:

In the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.

There has been just one fatal shooting by Icelandic police in the country’s 71-year history.The city of Stockton, California – with 25,000 fewer residents than all of Iceland combined – had three fatal encounters in the first five months of 2015.

Police in the US have shot and killed more people – in every week this year – than are reportedly shot and killed by German police in an entire year.

Have you encountered any negative feedback or have been a target (getting pulled over, receiving emails with threats of citations) from law enforcement/government officials?

[Jamiles Lartey] Certainly we have received lots of negative feedback which is fine, and to be expected when you report on a contentious topic. I can only speak for myself and say that I have not been bothered or threatened by law enforcement one bit since launching this project. We spend a lot of time, in the course of reporting The Counted, speaking with law enforcement and as a general rule, I have found that officials are professional and cordial to engage with, even if they don’t, or can’t provide all the information we are looking for– and even if they are familiar with our project.

Will your report include data on whether or not the officers were property dealt with after the incident? (ex. If they were indicted or put on paid leave or anything like that)

[Jon Swaine] Yes. On each “card” in our database representing a person who was killed – theguardian.com/thecounted – we have a section listing the status of the investigation into what happened. Some have been ruled justified, some have resulted in indictments and others remain under investigation.

How many deaths do yall think you have missed due to a lack of publicity or facts? The U.S. is a large place.

[Jon Swaine] We are very concerned that we are missing some deaths that are not being reported anywhere or announced by public officials. But we are working to counter this possibility and we hope that by making people aware of our project, we are alerted to as many incidents as possible.

Do you have any plans to cross-reference the number of fatal police encounters with the total number of police encounters? I feel like this would give us a better picture of whether or not we have a racist police problem or a badly trained bully police problem. I want to say it’s likely a combination of the two, but if the figures seem to point toward the latter, that’s something that needs to be addressed just as much as the racism issue.

[Jon Swaine] We would love for someone to download the data and cross-reference it with this and a lot of other things. At the moment we are concentrating on collecting the raw data on fatalities, which is taking up our time.

Will you be publishing the names of the officers who killed people?

[Jon Swaine] We are collecting this information wherever possible, but in many cases the authorities decline to release such details. If and when we have enough information, we will have a discussion here about what it would be constructive/useful to publish.

We are publishing the names of some officers in individual cases, such as Officer Stephen Rankin of Portsmouth, Virginia. He shot dead an unarmed 18-year-old earlier this year and had previously killed another unarmed man. I thought it was worth examining his actions in detail: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/stephen-rankin-military-trained-officer-william-chapman

You seem to have an agenda of saying there are too many police shootings. The ticker on your page clearly demonstrates that. Does it bother you that when readers actually read the descriptions of the cases they all sound very very reasonable?

[Jon Swaine] Our agenda is: better information.

It doesn’t bother us that people might have the reaction you mentioned; quite the opposite. We want people to be informed enough to understand what happens in these incidents. As you point out, many people were acting violently in their final moments and this has to be taken into account in debates on whether there could be fewer fatal shootings by police, or whether officers are responding appropriately.

Is this something that had always been happening and is only coming to light due to the Internet and availability of information, or is there an upward trend in police killings?

[Jon Swaine] Frustratingly we don’t really know, because of the lack of a comprehensive government count. Crowd-sourced counts such as KilledByPolice.net have been recording similar numbers in the past few years.

I do think, though, that the increased focus on these issues since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, last year has resulted in more care being taken to properly report on fatal incidents.

And the web – particularly social media such as Twitter – has definitely made it much simpler to count and monitor deaths remotely, for obvious reasons.

What was arguably the worst (worst being the most cringe-worthy) case of an abuse of justice (resulting in killing) by a US police officer that you managed to find during your research?

[Jon Swaine] We’re not making judgments ourselves on whether these actions were just or unjust. But there have been a few incidents recorded in the database that resulted in criminal charges for officers. For example:

Matthew Ajibade in Georgia: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#matthew-ajibade-2

Freddie Gray in Maryland: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#freddie-gray-421

Eric Harris in Oklahoma: http://theguardian.com/thecounted/list#eric-harris-289

If this project is completely unbiased, then why does the Twitter feed of “theCounted” often retweet when an unarmed black man was killed by police? Why would you pick and choose certain news stories to retweet over others?

[Jon Swaine] We tweet and retweet about a lot of different cases that we deem newsworthy. Last night I tweeted about a Texas grand jury’s verdict on the case of Kristiana Coignard – a white woman who was armed with a knife – and this was retweeted from @TheCounted. As we’ve reported elsewhere, though, black people are disproportionately numerous in the database.

A recent New York Times article reported that minorities only make up a quarter of America’s police forces. Do you think that recruiting more minority police officers would help alleviate the problems? Or do you think it’s just a case of a cop with a happy trigger finger?

[Jon Swaine] When I was reporting in Ferguson last year, a lot of residents told me and other journalists that the failure of their police department to accurately reflect the population was definitely a source of tension. The authorities there have acknowledged this and say they are working to strike a better balance, but it seems like slow work.

In our data collection, we are trying to record the racial details of officers involved in these fatal incidents, but in many cases the authorities refuse to name those involved, even after the verdicts are in on whether their actions were justified. So we don’t have enough information to publish yet.

Among those we do have, though, there is definitely a mix of black, white and Latino officers involved in fatal incidents. I think it’s worth noting that of the six officers charged with crimes over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, three were white and three were black. This is a complicated element of the issue.

What could U.S. police forces and legislators learn from other police forces in the world? How have other countries maintained a healthier relationship between civilian communities and law enforcement?

[Jon Swaine] Jamiles took a look at some international comparisons between US law enforcement and other forces here: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/09/the-counted-police-killings-us-vs-other-countries

Why not include the search option where you can filter if those involved were currently in the process of committing a crime? Police shooting someone who’s committing an armed robbery (and thus potentialy saving lives) is quite a different deal from police shooting someone in Wallmart for holding a gun he wants to purchase.

[Jamiles Lartey] Well there is a lot of grey area between those scenarios you just described. In many cases the only information we have on the circumstances of an incident comes from the police, and without a victim’s case being adjudicated in a court of law– it would be irresponsible in many cases to say they were in the process of committing a crime. We do include that information in the descriptions of the incidents, and it is certainly relevant- but the point here is that to turn 500 cases into a yes/no proposition on whether a crime was being committed is quite difficult.

Why is there so much media focus on police killings given their relative infrequency in comparison to killings in general?

[Jon Swaine] Homicides among the public are counted in detail by government authorities, but the federal government’s record of homicides by law enforcement officers is incomplete because the FBI makes reporting voluntary for local agencies. We want to correct this by constructing a more complete record.

One reason we think it’s worth shedding some light on these deaths in particular is that they were caused by public officials who are paid by American taxpayers. It seems reasonable that taxpayers should have solid data on which to base judgments about whether or not their law enforcement officers are acting appropriately.

Have you looked at the data on KilledByPolice.net? In 2014 there were 1,100 police-related homicides. Also, it is surprising that tasers are designated non-lethal, yet as you can see, they’ve killed more people here than police in other countries have killed period. Lastly, any thoughts on the way Massachusetts police have tried to be as transparent as they can?

[Oliver Laughland] Some of the crowdsourced police killings websites have been a really useful tool for us in researching the project. Killed By Police is one, Fatal Encounters is another. Obviously Killed By Police has been going a long time and has built up a really fantastic community online and it’s fantastic how open their model of record keeping is.

We have found on occasion though, that some of these sites include deaths that wouldn’t fit our criteria for logging ie. the death of a suspect who crashed a vehicle during a chase with police. There have been a number of instances where we’ve seen names logged in some of these accounts, then done follow ups ourselves and found that the individual was not actually killed – these are not frequent instances though. Our project has a number of different data entry points to these accounts too, including precise location data and the continuos tracking of status of any subsequent investigation into the killing.

It’s interesting you raise the 1,100 number for 2014. According to our projection based on six months of our data from 2015, we’re looking at a number around that for the whole of 2015 too.

One the taser question, we’ve logged 31 deaths that have occurred following an individual being shocked by taser. The circumstances of each death obviously vary – from cardiac arrests to people who have sustained fatal blunt trauma injuries from falls sustained after being shocked. Research by Amnesty estimated around estimates around 500 people were killed after taser incidents in the US between 2001 and 2012, underlining why it’s so important to keep track of these sorts of deaths.

On the Massachusetts question, we haven’t honed in on any police departments in that state as of yet, but the data states seven people have died at the hands of law enforcement there so far this year. It has the 39th highest rate in the country.

Have you been able to identify any cases when police deaths are not being reported or are misreported?

[Jon Swaine] We have so far identified at least six cases in which the people killed had never before been publicly named by local authorities or media. We wrote about the cases here – http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/03/counted-police-killing-victims-unnamed-texas-california . We got hold of the details from authorities through inquiries and public records requests

Why are you guys pretending that you are being 100% unbiased data collectors when it is obvious that this is an activist project to criticize the police?

[Oliver Laughland] There’s no activism involved. Our goals are actually incredibly straight forward – to document impartially the number of police killings in the US as and when they occur, through a set of stringent criteria. We came at the project with no expectations in terms of trends we would observe, but the numbers do lead us to some pretty stark realities; the rate that unarmed black Americans are killed by police is twice that of white Americans; over a quarter of people killed by police are suffering from some sort of mental health problem; police in states like Oklahoma and Arizona kill people at a much higher rate than states like Pennsylvania and Illinois. We think that trends like these are newsworthy and warrant further interrogation.

The Guardian has taken an editorial stance and called on the federal government to also collect these records, but I wouldn’t necessarily associate that with an activist cause.

Sounds like you guys are doing great work in the states. Any idea about the level of coverage police killings get in the UK? Are there a lot of stories that go untold?

[Jon Swaine] As many people know, most police in the UK do not carry guns and there are relatively few deaths caused by police officers.

However The Guardian has a record of scrutinising the actions of law enforcement in the UK. Back in 2009, our colleague Paul Lewis obtained video and broke the story that a man who died at a protest in London had been thrown to the ground from behind by an officer.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/apr/07/ian-tomlinson-g20-death-video

What are some conclusions you’ve reached so far analyzing this data?

[Jon Swaine] Among other things, we have noticed that there are significant disparities in the ethnic/racial backgrounds of people who have been killed by police so far in 2015.

This morning we published a story detailing how, when you take into account census data to accurately reflect the US population, black people are being killed at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic/Latino people http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/01/us-police-killings-this-year-black-americans

Last month we also found that black people killed by police were twice as likely as white people killed by police to have been unarmed: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/black-americans-killed-by-police-analysis

But is using census data as the base point for comparison valid? The only proper comparison point, in my opinion, is the makeup of violent criminal suspects for the given location. Violent crimes are tracked quite well as a victim reported description so as to remove “the police bias” accusations. The fact of racial demographics had to be compared in light of offense data. No one would seriously question why men are over represented in both this data and incarceration data..No one seriously believes there is some anti-male prejudice and women are getting away with more violent crimes. The male population is the violent crime offender pool (overwhelmingly). To turn a blind eye to the comparison point validity guarantees seeing bias whether out is there or not.

[Oliver Laughland] I think you raise a really interesting point. One of the things we’ve been so pleased with since launch is seeing other news organisation taking our data and running their own analysis on it. Take this example from Five Thirty Eight: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/where-police-have-killed-americans-in-2015/

One of their reporters used our location data, converted it into census tracts, which allowed them to look at the economic and demographic information on the neighborhoods where killings took place. Through that they were able to conclude that police killings tended to take place more in neighborhoods that are poorer and blacker.

I’m sure using our data with other forms of census data or crime trends data would turn up equally interesting results. We see the project as a starting point and we’re always happy when people make suggestions or try to take the data on and transform it into something new.

How do you feel about the news speak phrase “officer involved shooting? And seeing as how your team is from several different countries, is that term handled differently in other countries? Maybe just “shot by police”?

[Jon Swaine] It’s not a very useful phrase. It doesn’t indicate whether an officer was shot or shot somebody. We try to avoid it and instead describe what happened concisely and precisely.

I can’t say I know how authorities and media other countries refer to similar incidents. But that’s interesting and I’m going to look into it.

So we have an idea how many calls police get are strictly mental health responses? It seems that a significant number killed are experiencing a mental health crisis.

[Oliver Laughland] We don’t have the precise data on how many calls were made in relation to mental health issues, which then resulted in a fatality (although we could pull that from our data with a few sorts). But we do know that in 27% of all fatalities so far this year the person who died was experiencing some sort of mental health issue at the time.

It’s a striking statistic, and something that has really jumped out at all of us when compiling the database. Our colleague Lauren Gambino wrote this excellent piece on the case of Denis Reyes, a Bronx resident in New York who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and died in police custody in May.

It also summarised some of the broader issues around the lack of officer training to deal with people suffering mental health episodes:

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/03/denis-reyes-the-counted-nypd

What conclusions can you draw from the data? Is race a determining factor in fatal shootings, as it so clearly seems to be? How about socioeconomic status? Gender? Age? How about location? Are certain states or cities more predisposed to fatal shootings? Or does the likelihood of a fatal shooting depend entirely upon the circumstances and/or individuals involved (i.e., suspect looked like they were holding a gun, degree of crime they were suspected of, personal feelings/attitudes/degree of training of the police officer(s) involved, etc.)? What kind of statistics can be gleaned from your work? Have fatal police-involved shootings increased or decreased over the past several years?

[Jamiles Lartey] We haven’t set out to make causal claims with The Counted, so I certainly wouldn’t say that “race is a determining factor,” so much as I would say that– in 2015 so far, black Americans have been overrepresented compared to census proportions.

Using our data, FiveThirtyEight did a fascinating analysis which showed that police killings have tended to happen in poorer communities with higher concentrations of black people. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/where-police-have-killed-americans-in-2015/

Some other quick notes I can give you from your questions–

So far in 2015 the gender data skews about 95-5 towards men.

Median age as of today is 35.

Oklahoma and Arizona have had the most killings per capita. Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont have had none.

I shy away from making claims about what causes fatal shootings or police killing in general– each case I think should be considered it’s own universe with a million variables. We will pull out themes and trends and they will hopefully be useful— but trying to pinpoint a cause is generally difficult to do.

Because our project is the most comprehensive database ever compiled on the topic, it is difficult to compare it over time and get an idea for the degree of change.

All good questions, thank you.

How does it make you feel, seeing that all of these people have been killed for what seems like no reason?

[Jon Swaine] We aren’t making personal calls on whether or not there was a reason people were killed, but recording some of these deaths has raised questions that we hope to illuminate in our reporting.

For example, I reported on the death of William Chapman, an unarmed 18-year-old who was suspected of shoplifting http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/william-chapman-unarmed-shot-dead I also looked at Stephen Rankin, the officer who shot him dead, who had killed another unarmed man a few years earlier: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/stephen-rankin-military-trained-officer-william-chapman

We want this reporting to prompt discussion about whether it can be necessary for an unarmed 18-year-old to be shot dead, and whether an officer with this kind of record may warrant further scrutiny by the authorities.

Working on this project has certainly given me a better appreciation for the texture of the issue. The people killed are from a variety of backgrounds and this is sometimes not comprehensively reflected in media coverage of fatalities involving police officers. We hope to address this with the project.

When you look at all of the recent news stories, what in your opinion could be done to remedy the attitudes of citizens to police officers and vice versa?

[Jamiles Lartey] Well I hope we are not becoming a broken record, but simply having the data available goes a long way I think. Much of the dialogue that happens around this issue tends to come with fragmented, cherry-picked or exaggerated information– so I think step one for changing these attitudes which can at times be unconstructive, is robust and transparent information on exactly what’s happening.

How long will this project go on?

[Oliver Laughland] We haven’t set a time limit on the project, the first hurdle for us is to get to the end of 2015 and continue to report on interesting trends we identify in the data and any striking cases that we come across. Obviously a lot of the project’s longevity is contingent on the response from federal government. Around the time the Guardian launched the Counted, our editorial board published a piece backing calls for the US department of justice to start keeping its own effective reporting system. That goal has been a central campaign platform for movements growing out of Black Lives Matter and the new civil rights movement, as well as advocacy groups like the ACLU and Amnesty.

The project thus far has been taken very seriously by a number of senior politicians in Washington as well as members of President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing, many of whom have publicly backed The Counted. The backers of two mandatory police fatality reporting bills in the senate and the house have told us The Counted provided a boost to their efforts to get the legislation passed.

Of course we get the occasional detractor on social media, but overwhelmingly the response has been positive and collaborative.

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