GARY — At the start of the year, a group of criminal justice students at Indiana University Northwest began combing the internet for news articles that detailed police-involved shootings — plotting each incident on a U.S. map along the way.
Sounds easy enough, right?
“If you stay up late at night on the weekends, and you actually get online and type in ‘officer-involved shooting,’ you can barely record a (point on the map) and refresh before another one pops up,” Zach Hall, a criminal justice major at IUN, explained. “It’s pretty interesting.”
Since Jan.1, there have been 434 police-involved shootings where 268 people have been killed by police. Nearly four months into 2017 and 268 people have been killed by police (as of March 26), according to the mapping tool updated daily by Dr. Joseph Ferrandino’s class to fulfill their senior capstone project requirement.
The Times of Northwest Indiana, in partnership with Ferrandino, agreed to host the map on the publication's website. The map can be found here: http://www.nwitimes.com/pdshootings.
Angela Okwei said her classmates' work differs from most other online databases. National news organizations, like the Washington Post, only track fatal police shootings of civilians, while pro-police organizations typically track all deaths of officers who die in the line of duty. The IUN map goes one step further by tracking all known police-involved shootings in which a civilian or an officer was injured or killed in 2017 across the United States.
“People have their opinions and the media gives limited information, so it’s up to others to search out that information. It being in one place is very helpful for everyone to see all the correlations,” Okwei said.
The mapping project tracks several factors, where available, including the race and name of the civilian, the name of the police officer, and the circumstances of the shooting. If body camera footage is available, students try to include that information, too. The IUN map also includes a layer of Washington Post 2015-2016 data.
Students also include information — like whether the suspect had a mental illness or disability, or was armed with a knife or firearm — from news articles to provide context. Okwei said she thinks the map suggests more investment should be made in mental illness and police training for de-escalating situations.
"It's very good for the police, and policy makers, to view it," Okwei said.
Of the 268 incidents in which a citizen died so far this year: 248 citizens were killed without officers being shot or killed, there are five incidents in which both the citizen and the officer were killed, and 15 incidents in which an officer was shot and a civilian was killed.
By comparison, 10 officers have been shot and killed by civilians. In all, there were another 161 police-involved shootings that did not result in death.
There have been 11 incidents in Indiana so far this year, including two in Gary. A retired Gary police captain was shot during a home invasion Feb. 21 and a police dog was shot Jan. 18 by a suspect during a traffic stop in Gary.
The issue of police use of force was thrust into the spotlight after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Shortly after Brown’s death, a Washington Post analysis of records maintained by the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed police-involved fatal shootings were being widely under-reported across the country.
The FBI tracks some information about these cases, and until Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2014, local police departments were not legally required to report officer-involved shootings or civilian deaths while in police custody to the federal government. The FBI plans to launch a pilot program to report use-of-force statistics.
IUN student Jennifer Lankas, 21, said she was most surprised by the sheer volume of shootings. Students say they are learning that law enforcement are often thrust into intense situations while taking calls for a domestic disturbances sparked by family arguments, mental illness and violence in the home.
"I never realized how many shootings occurred each day. They are a lot of citizens being shot by police. But when you click on the point on the map, and read the news article, you see it's the citizens' fault," Lankas said.
The map has its limitations. It only includes incidents that have been reported, mainly by local newspapers or media outlets.
As of March 26, the students’ mapping project includes at least 175 incidents in which the citizen’s race was not reported. Where the data is known, suspects were white in 109 cases; black in 74 cases; Hispanic in 60 cases and Asian in one case. There were 14 other races.
“A lot of our data isn’t missing because we’re not looking. It’s just not there," Ferrandino said.
Each incident has to meet certain criteria, often hashed out during classroom debates, Ferrandino said.
For example, there was debate about a police-involved shooting earlier this year in Gary. Blade, a Gary police dog, was shot in the line of duty as he assisted his partner during a traffic stop, Ferrandino said.
Ultimately, the students agreed Blade should be considered a sworn officer, he said.
Some of the IUN students keep tabs on shootings by signing up for news alerts and searching key terms online. Others pull directly from local news reports, police department websites and by reviewing online scrapping sites.
What students are finding is police are quick to release incident narratives and even a suspect’s identity and history, but are less forthcoming about an officer’s name, race and other details. The vast majority of police-involved shootings remain under investigation. In only three cases, officers have been charged with crimes. In 27 cases, the officer's actions have been determined as justified.
Charles Weaver, 25, one of Ferrandino's students at IUN, said the cases are more complex than black versus white or armed versus unarmed.
"That's the interesting thing about this project. There are some instances where the officers were justified to use their actions. Some were not," Weaver said. "And for the some that were not, they're still trying to find that story. Was this really justified? Some shootings that happened a couple of months ago, they're still discussing that."
Ferrandino said though he considers the map a constant work in progress, he hopes it serves as a conversation starter.
"If somebody in December had asked me about police shootings, I would have given an answer and it would have been totally wrong,” Ferrandino said. “I would have given my opinion as to what I thought was happening, but I wouldn’t have had all the information. To be able to look at all of these incidents, where it’s occurring, what the circumstances were, and picturing it from both sides, you’re a lot more informed.”