Google News Is Better at Collecting Data on Cop Killings than the F.B.I.

Human Rights

If you want to keep up with the number of civilians killed by cops at any given moment, setting up an alert on Google News is likely your best bet.

So far, Google News is helping media organizations and independent websites keep better track of police shootings around the country than the FBI. According to the Washington Post, 466 people have been killed by cops this year. The Guardian, which is also keeping track of police killings through it’s own database, has tallied 568.

(A quick note: one reason why the The Guardian’s count is higher than The Post’s is because it counts all police killings, not just shootings. So, a death by chokehold, in the case of Eric Garner, would be counted in The Guardian’s count but not The Post’s.)

The Post and The Guardian are relying on Fatal Encounters and Killed By Police, two independent websites that track police shootings, to compile their databases, according to The Marshall Project. Those websites are using Google News, which allows users to set up custom searches of news topics and email those findings via “alerts.”

In a way, the platform is keeping the cops more accountable than local, state and federal governments.

In more than four decades, The FBI has not counted more than 460 shootings in one year. In less than six months, The Post hit that number. That said, it is likely that the FBI has missed thousands of shootings over the years. Using news links from Killed By Police, The FiveThirtyEight estimated in August that cops kill at least 1000 people per year. The Bureau of Justice Statistics published a study in March claiming the FBI is only counting about half of the shootings that occurred between 2003-2009 and 2011, so the FiveThirtyEight’s estimates would seem to track.

There are some drawbacks to using Google News to get an accurate count of cop shootings.

The media isn’t a reliable counter of police shootings because, well, it isn’t their job. And there is a chance that local media aren’t covering every shooting, either. Google News was launched in 2006, so using the platform to count shootings before that time was impossible. And, as The Marshall Project noted, the farther back you search in Google News, the less thorough the results will be.

But, still, Google News is making the recent reporting we see in the Washington Post and The Guardian possible. At the same time, the dissemination of videos of cops killing citizens on social media is pressuring public officials to address the issue and compelling the media to cover these  incidents properly, rather than just repeating the official line

Senators Cory Booker and Barbara Boxer introduced the Police Reporting of Information, Data and Evidence Act (or PRIDE) immediately after The Post and The Guardian began their series. The legislation, if passed, would require all law enforcement agencies nationwide to report demographic details of every shooting or incident that results in serious bodily harm. For law enforcement agencies that don’t have money to collect statistics, grants will be available to offset the costs of data collection.

Only 2,700 out of 22,000 law enforcement agencies reported data on police-involved shootings in 2013, the latest year from which such data is available.

Before PRIDE was introduced, President Barack Obama launched his Task Force On 21st Century Policing, which is working with organizations like Code For America. The partnership is suppose to help police departments “build transparency and increase community trust” by improving data collecting practices then sharing it with the public.

But Google News has already empowered media and independent websites to create publicly available databases that communities can use to keep up with how police interact with people.

So, the federal government has some catching up to do. Technology is way ahead of Uncle Sam in the data collection game.

When Google News was launched in 2006, the creators likely envisioned the platform helping users to keep up with the news, not how many people made the news after the cops killed them.



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