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Criminal Justice

USC Project Tracks Police Killings Across The US

A man and woman approach the entrance to the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters.
The Los Angeles Police Department is among the law enforcement agencies included in a database that tracks deadly police incidents.
(Andrew Cullen for LAist)
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USC researchers have created a database that tracks deadly police incidents across the country.

The National Officer Involved Homicide Database collects information from police departments and government agencies on deaths involving law enforcement officers. It supplements previous work done by Fatal Encounters, a site run by journalist and USC research associate D. Brian Burghart.

Brian Finch, a researcher with USC’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, led the development of the database. He said it started with a question spurred by a Washington Post article on police killings a few years ago: “How many citizens do U.S. police kill in a given year? And the answer was, we simply don't know.”

“Being kind of a data junkie, I said, ‘This seems to be something we should be able to collect.’”

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Finch said his team collected information on more than 30,000 police encounters in which someone died over the last 20 years. In Los Angeles County, Finch said there are an average of 50 a year.

“We estimate that officer-involved homicides are about 8% of the total homicides in the U.S. in any given year,” he said, adding that there’s been an uptick nationally the past couple of years.

The USC database includes information on whether the person killed was armed, and identifies the department that performed an autopsy. It also tracks cases in which an officer was killed.

The database includes data on municipal debt — a research angle that Finch wants to dig into to assess whether municipal debt triggers over-policing that can lead to more police killings.

Finch said his team’s preliminary analysis of the data found that deadly police encounters are increasing more quickly in suburban and rural areas, not cities. Another preliminary finding: police killings are less likely to be officially listed as such if the medical examiner or coroner is overseen by a sheriff.

Finch said he’s seeking funding to keep the database up to date moving forward.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.