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This is how reporters documented 1,000 deaths after police force that isn’t supposed to be fatal

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After George Floyd was killed under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, reporters at The Associated Press wanted to know how many other people died following encounters in which law enforcement used not firearms but other kinds of force that is not supposed to be fatal.

The U.S. government is supposed to track these non-shooting deaths, but poor implementation and inconsistent reporting from local law enforcement agencies mean no one really knows the scope.

A team of journalists led by the AP spent three years reporting on deaths after “less-lethal force.” For that investigation, done in collaboration with the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism and FRONTLINE (PBS), reporters created a new database that provides the most complete accounting yet of these cases, and new opportunities to understand patterns in policing.

The investigation identified 1,036 deaths over a decade following encounters that involved less-lethal force. Some cases are well-known. Others have not been reported publicly. The total is undoubtedly an undercount — deaths can be hard to verify, including due to the deliberate suppression of information.

More than 800 of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. had at least one documented fatality. The nation’s 20 largest cities accounted for 16% of deaths.

To be included, cases had to meet the following criteria. Primary source documentation was required to verify each case, typically records from government agencies. News reports or lawsuit allegations alone were not enough to substantiate a case.

WHAT: Encounters that involved at least one type of force, restraint or less-lethal weapon beyond handcuffs.

Holding someone facedown in what is known as prone restraint and Tasers were the most prevalent types of force. Blows with fists or knees, takedowns and devices to restrain people’s legs were also common. Less so were chokeholds, pepper spray, spit hoods, dog bites and bean bag rounds fired through a shotgun. Reporters excluded deaths by firearm and car crashes after police pursuits.

Inclusion does not always mean excessive force. In about half of the cases, the medical examiner or coroner concluded that law enforcement caused or contributed to the death.

Fewer than 10 deaths were ruled suicides. Such cases were included only when officers used significant force, for example a Taser to shock someone so they would stop slashing themself.

WHEN: Encounters that occurred from Jan. 1, 2012, through Dec. 31, 2021.

WHO: Officers who interact with the general public, often on patrol.

Most cases involved local police or sheriff’s deputies, but some officers were state or university police. Deaths involving only jailers, prison guards or federal agents, such as from the Border Patrol, were excluded. When others helped police — whether private security, civilians, paramedics, firefighters, jailers or federal agents — the force they exerted was not included. The exception was when medical personnel administered sedatives, sometimes at the encouragement of police.

WHERE: Deaths often occurred at the scene or in the hospital soon after. The most common location for an encounter was in or near the home of the deceased.

Fatalities in jails or police station holding cells were excluded, unless a person died shortly after force during an arrest, or the force continued in the jail with the involvement of arresting officers. Deaths in prison were excluded.

To document deaths, reporters at AP and the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland filed roughly 7,000 requests with public agencies across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The resulting repository of documents exceeded 200,000 pages and included hundreds of hours of body-camera footage. While some records were released without charge, the effort to collect them cost more than $39,000 in fees.

In designing the strategies for requesting and interpreting all those records, AP reporters consulted with experts in policing, public health, forensic pathology and other fields.

Reporters first submitted requests seeking data from state agencies which might collect the names of people who died after encounters with police. These requests went to the attorney general or state police as well as to the chief medical examiner or health department. Where a state had centralized data, reporters combed through tens of thousands of names to identify those who died after less-lethal force, rather than in shootings, car chases or while behind bars.

Many states don’t track these deaths or consider them public information. In several states, reporters went county by county, calling coroners and mailing requests to obtain lists of potential cases.

Reporters identified additional potential cases to review from tips by sources, news stories, court cases and databases that researchers and others have shared to track deaths. No death was included based on this information alone.

After obtaining a name, reporters filed records requests to law enforcement agencies, district attorneys and medical examiners seeking incident reports, autopsy reports, internal investigations and video. They also read lawsuit exhibits and depositions, and in some cases contacted families for records. AP also contacted every law enforcement agency involved in a death with a questionnaire about its use-of-force policies and training.

In all, about 270 of the 1,036 cases AP identified did not appear in any of three well-known, public databases that include non-shooting deaths.

The investigation also looked at coroners and medical examiners, whose opinions about how and why a person died influence investigators and prosecutors. Drawing mostly from death certificates or autopsy reports, as well as police reports, investigations by local district attorneys, lawsuits or government databases, reporters gathered the official cause and manner of death in 951 cases.

Many times, agencies released records, but blacked out information or blurred videos. Officers routinely used vague language like “struggle” or “taken into custody” in their reports, glossing over more serious force documented in other evidence.

Laws in some states — notably Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska and Pennsylvania — restrict public access to government records, so reporters couldn’t always determine whether a death fit the investigation’s criteria. Elsewhere, records were lost to time, flood or fire. Other requests for records foundered without resolution, or were denied outright. And high costs for records — including one estimate of $10,000 for video in a Nevada death — also limited access.

Because access to records varied widely, comparisons risk being misleading. Based on the strict criteria reporters used, the investigation could document only one death in Philadelphia, a city of 1.6 million — the same number as Philadelphia, Mississippi, population 7,000.

In addition to the 1,036 criteria deaths, there were about 100 others that reporters had reason to believe may be cases based on news reports or lawsuit allegations. These cases are not currently in the database because reporters have not yet independently confirmed the details, sometimes because agencies refused to release information.

AP continues to seek information about deaths that may meet the criteria outlined above and are not included in the database. Please send information about the case, as well as any documents you may have, to investigative@ap.org.

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This story is part of an ongoing investigation led by The Associated Press in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs and FRONTLINE (PBS). The investigation includes the Lethal Restraint interactive story, database and the documentary, “Documenting Police Use Of Force,” premiering April 30 on PBS.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. This story also was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

By TAYLOR STEVENS, JUSTIN PRITCHARD and HELEN WIEFFERING
Associated Press

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