How This Series Was Put Together
Sunday, November 15, 1998; Page A27
This series on the use of force by Washington's Metropolitan Police Department is the result of an eight-month investigation by a team of Washington Post reporters and researchers. The team conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed more than 100,000 pages of case files and reports and plumbed computer databases containing more than 1 million records.
Although federal, state and local agencies monitor crime trends, the United States lacks a reliable system for tracking shootings by police. The FBI collects computerized information on justifiable homicides by police. The Post began with these records, which indicated that police in the District had fatally shot more people in the 1990s than in any city of comparable size.
Some criminologists have questioned the accuracy of the data. The Post found that the FBI was missing data on fatal police shootings in several cities. The Post chose to survey police departments directly about their shootings, focusing on the 27 U.S. cities that had at least a half-million residents at any time from 1990 to 1996. The Post compared the results to FBI figures, news articles, scholarly studies and information from other law enforcement agencies. Small discrepancies were common; when substantial differences appeared, police departments were asked to clarify their numbers.
To further compare the incidence of police shootings in Washington with other large cities, The Post used government databases including U.S. Census Bureau population estimates and the FBI's annual city-by-city tallies of violent crime, homicide, arrests for violent crime and department size. To compensate for year-to-year fluctuations, missing information and variation in the way departments may report crime or count fatal shootings by police, The Post averaged figures over several years and measured Washington against both the combined and individual rates for the other 26 big cities. Comparing Washington to a smaller group of big cities with high murder rates provided another yardstick.
The District's rate of police shootings in the 1990s was well above average by most of these comparisons. It was highest when measured against population and closest to the norm for big cities when measured against murder rates.
To examine shooting trends in the District and individual cases involving D.C. officers, The Post obtained a computerized database from the department's Use of Service Weapon Review Board listing incidents from 1994 through May 1998. Missing details and cases were discovered through internal police reports, court files, press releases, news articles and records from the U.S. attorney's office and the D.C. corporation counsel. The Post obtained internal police investigative files for more than two dozen shootings, as well as internal police records tracking hundreds of citizen complaints.
At civil and criminal courts in the District, The Post sifted through nearly 1,000 electronic docketing records, examined more than 400 lawsuits filed against D.C. police and reviewed dozens of criminal cases brought against citizens shot by the police.
At The Post's request, five experts in the use of police force reviewed 16 shooting cases. A recognized criminologist reviewed comparative data gathered by The Post on police shootings in other large U.S. cities. Sarah Cohen of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting helped with statistical analysis.
Jo Craven and Ira Chinoy
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company