2020| George 'Big Floyd' Floyd
grappling with the limits
A metaLAB (at) Harvard statement by Matthew Battles and Kim Albrecht
Data based on the Fatal Encounters database
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We live in a world of systemic racism and systemic violence. The two are inextricably intertwined. This violence tears at victims' families, communities, and everyone involved in fatal encounters with law enforcement. Its effects fall disproportionately on communities of color and Black communities, families, and lives in particular.
This page visualizes the names of over 28,000 fatal encounters with police nationwide, from 2000 until the death of George Floyd. It treats the victims as individual persons, highlighting the often sad and disturbing stories behind each datapoint. Beyond listing first names and initials, the site makes available the news and police reports from which the data are taken. It draws on data compiled by Fatal Encounters, a nonprofit, led by journalist and researcher D. Brian Burghart, committed to gathering data on police-related deaths across the United States.
Not all of the mortalities documented here come directly at police hands; deaths include suicides, accidents, and civilian homicides that occur during police interventions. The causes of any individual fatal encounter are complex; brutality is not only a factor in policing, but infiltrates our schools, our housing and planning mechanisms, and our public health systems. This systemic violence, which falls disproportionately and distinctly on African Americans, is deep-rooted, pervasive, and resistant to incremental reform.
Alongside the complexity of mortal interactions, we're struck by the sheer scale of death associated with policing in American communities. As white American and international researchers, our perception of the ensuing trauma is partial and limited. But we must bear witness to this vast system of violence, which exacts a toll on everyone it touches, from the victims, to their bereaved loved ones, to the police who wield this fatal power, to the communities who must contend with the ensuing trauma. We are compelled to acknowledge, as residents of and visitors to American cities, counties, and states, how much violence is done in our name.
The effects of this violence are hard to see and trace at scale, as police departments are not required to make a transparent accounting of these government-sanctioned deaths. Although the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act required the Department of Justice to compile use-of-force statistics, these collection efforts remain partial and spotty, with separate registries for arrest-related fatalities, excessive-force complaints, and attacks on officers (a listing of these Bureau of Justice registries may be found here). The federal mandate for the collection of data on deaths in custody was renewed in the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. But—astonishingly—as the 2015 Final Report on the President's Task Force on 21st-Century Policing points out, reporting is voluntary for local police organizations. The federal government only collects data that are made available to them.
To address this lack, Burghart started Fatal Encounters project in 2012. Visualizations and analysis at fatalencounters.org develop some of the lines of research and reporting these data suggest, tracking police-involved fatalities historically, demographically, and in distribution across the American landscape of race, class, and region. Working with an interdisciplinary team at the University of Southern California, Burghart and his collaborators have made their data available to the public. In conjunction with researchers at USC, their work to compile, collate, and analyze these data is ongoing; the culmination of three years of the USC team's work is about to be made available to the public.
Close to 6,000 of the victims are African-American, with some 9,000 fatalities listed for American of European ancestry—in a society in which only twelve percent of Americans are Black. Some 9,000 additional victims are listed as "Race unspecified." These data are documented from police reports or news coverage—of course, such sources are never neutral. The criminalization of race and poverty, and the presumptive immunity and infallibility of the police, are deeply held institutional and social norms, which condition reporting.
There are various forms of mappings of this and similar datasets available. Distributions over time or geographical maps have in common that they aggregate the data. These forms of visualization sometimes represent hundreds of deaths in one rectangle, or by a shade of color. This page, instead, treats the victims as individual persons, highlighting the often sad and disturbing stories behind each datapoint.
The data we visualize here don't render judgements; there is no field or tag for guilt or responsibility. Without consistent and reliable mechanisms for oversight, public data-gathering efforts like Fatal Encounters must rely on police reports and the coverage of often-collusive local news media outlets. These efforts, along with others like Mapping Police Violence, the U.S. Police Shootings Database, and The Washington Post's Fatal Force, are vital because, in the absence of transparency and accountability, the violence taking place in the context of public safety must be rendered visible.
What does this visualization make you think and feel—and what are we missing? Click here to participate by sharing your views.
A statement by metaLAB (at) Harvard. Text by Matthew Battles, design and code by Kim Albrecht. Contact via website or by eMail.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Albrecht