In 2014, when protesters filled the streets after a police officer shot a young man named Michael Brown in Missouri, the nation’s attention turned to an embarrassing fact: Nobody keeps count of police shootings in any kind meaningful way.
In an era when so much data is at our fingertips, experts and reporters struggled to put the shooting into context because no one was keeping track.
To fill the void, the Tampa Bay Times sent a records request to each of the nearly 400 police departments and sheriff’s offices in Florida, asking for reports generated each time an officer shot someone.
Some agencies responded immediately. Others charged us hundreds of dollars to produce the documents. Some ignored the request until we threatened to sue. The information collection alone cost the newspaper more than $5,000, not counting the hundreds of hours spent tracking all 388 requests.
As the police reports trickled in over the coming months and years, we realized we were collecting a mountain of information that could be used to not only count the shootings, but also to better understand who police shoot — and why. We saw value in categorizing and quantifying the situational information for each dynamic officer-involved shooting. We gathered demographic information for each officer and each person shot, but we also noted whether things like drugs or alcohol, domestic violence or mental illness were involved; whether the person shot had committed a violent crime; what preceding incident generated the police contact; whether the police account was in dispute; whether the family of the person shot had sued police; and whether the officer was awarded, reprimanded or disciplined.
We built an interactive webpage to handle the input and solicited help from Times staffers and senior journalism students at the University of South Florida and University of Tampa to turn the narratives into numbers.
After two and a half years of data collection and entry, we began building a family of interactive webpages to help readers make sense of the data. With an eye toward context, we created a unique narrative brief for each of the 827 shootings, and linked each incident with others that were similar. We mapped each shooting to give readers a way to explore them geographically. We produced an interactive web-only graphic that highlighted racial and situational trends the data had revealed. We produced a series of documentary videos that explored activism, police training and questionable shootings.
We used the data to inform the reporting of the main 10,000-word narrative, which highlighted the trends and told the stories of shooting victims and law-enforcement leaders with ideas about how to keep police and citizens safer.
The project for the first time took accurate count of police shootings over six years in the third largest state in the country and used data to show when and why police shoot citizens. The information we collected is now being used in criminal justice programs and police training centers across the country.