Building a database of officer-involved shootings from scratch

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In August, Frontier reporters will be posting some of their favorite stories from the first half of 2019 and discussing the reporting process that went into the story. Want to support The Frontier? Click here.

Dylan Goforth. Photo by Shane Bevel
The Eric Harris shooting happened in April 2015, and despite there being very little information about the killing released in the immediate aftermath, I knew it would turn into a big story.

The following year, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by a Tulsa Police Department officer. I got a call that night from a source who told me the same thing, that it was going to turn into a national news item.

While investigating the shootings, I realized that in-depth information on officer-involved shootings in Oklahoma was scarce. When Harris was killed by Tulsa County reserve deputy Robert Bates, I wondered how often a volunteer officer had shot and killed someone in Oklahoma. No matter who I asked, no one knew, no one kept track of anything like that.

The same problem arose following the Crutcher shooting. Like Harris, Crutcher, shot and killed by TPD officer Betty Shelby, was unarmed.

I had dozens of questions. How often do female officers shoot male suspects? How often are black men killed by white officers? How often do unarmed people get shot by police? When they’re unarmed, what reasons do officers give for firing the fatal shots? Had these officers ever shot anyone before?

No one had these answers. There was no central database of officer-involved shooting information in Oklahoma. The best you could hope for were news snippets, most of which only contained information from the first few hours following the shooting. And there was no way to know how comprehensive your information was.

Shot by Shot: Oklahoma officer-involved shootings in 2019

The result was that we told stories about the Harris and Crutcher shootings, but they were incomplete, missing context that was necessary to fully comprehend what had actually happened.

So for 2018 I decided I would just do the work myself. It meant I had to make hundreds of phone calls throughout the year. I had to monitor more than a few Google alerts. I had to read page after page of court documents, and talk to dozens of lawyers and grieving family members.

But when the year was up, we had created the most comprehensive place of information about Oklahoma’s officer-involved shootings. At the end of the year I was able to show per capita rates of shootings broken down racial lines. I could easily look at see where the most shootings were happening and where the most fatal shootings had occurred.

And I was able to discover a couple of things that wouldn’t have been possible without the information I had collected. For one, I found that many officers who shoot and killed suspects never have their identities released to the public. And I found that type of non-disclosure is happening more and more frequently.

I also was able to identify common characteristics of people who were shot by police. Most often they were white men who were armed with guns and who had a history of domestic violence complaints against them.

Over the course of 2018 I wrote many stories that came from the information I was collecting, and I’m doing the same thing in 2019.

That kind of reporting takes time — time I’m lucky enough to have at The Frontier, and time that’s only possible due to financial contributions of our readers.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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