Now, that information has been made available via a new online spreadsheet compiled by Amanda Woog, a super-smart young attorney who clerked for Judge Cheryl Johnson at the Court of Criminal Appeals before working as a policy analyst for the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, where Grits first met her this spring. This fall, she took a post as a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis; this database represents her first project in that new role.
Ms. Woog graciously agreed to sit down for a podcast to discuss in detail what information is included in these new reports and the other source she's drawn upon for the database, as well as how this information might influence public discussions surrounding police shootings. (See a brief analysis she prepared regarding the new law and its implementation.)
Some of the incidents Woog catalogs have never been publicly reported in the media. And even though the new statute doesn't require departments to report either the name of the officer of the person he or she shot, in many cases she has been able to find that information from other sources. So she's adding a lot of value here for journalists and other researchers. You can listen to our conversation here:
Or else find a transcript of our discussion appended below the jump.
Transcript: Interview with Amanda Woog by Scott Henson regarding new police shootings database, October 19, 2015.
Amanda Woog: Thanks Scott. Good to be here.
SH: Great. Tell me about this new data that you’re working with, where it came from, why we all of a sudden have information on this topic when we didn’t before, what’s going on? Tell us about your project.
AW: Sure. Last session, Representative [Eric] Johnson introduced HB 1036, which was sponsored by Senator [John] Whitmire in the Senate. Basically, the new law requires that law enforcement agencies submit reports to the Office of the Attorney General when there is what’s called an “officer-involved shooting.” That can include when a peace officer shoots another person or another person shoots a peace officer. This law has emerged in the midst of a national conversation on police violence towards civilians and also civilian violence towards police officers. Starting September 1st, law enforcement agencies have 30 days to report when these incidents occur and the Office of the Attorney General has created a reporting form that these agencies are supposed to be using and posts the report on the Attorney General’s website as the reports come in.
SH: Because really, the Attorney General is just posting PDFs of the one-page paper form. It’s not really in a database where you can search it, where you can analyze based on the different fields on the form. Is that correct?
AW: Right. That’s correct. Right now it’s literally a list of PDF links on the Attorney General’s website so a person wanting to get information on each of the reports would have to separately open each report and take a look for whatever they’re looking for. What I’m doing is aggregating that data into a single available source.
SH: Right. On the other hand, it’s pretty amazing that this information even exists. During all of the Black Lives Matter debates and the Ferguson debates, one of the big issues that came up is that no one was tracking shootings by police officers or a lot of these details about violence that were coming up on an anecdotal basis but no one really had solid information. So for Texas to start to gather this information in a systematic way is pretty great.
AW: Right. Since I started working on this project, I’ve of course been noticing newspaper articles that are focused on the issue of data availability when we’re talking about these kinds of encounters. And of course, President Obama’s task force recently released recommendations that included how to collect data about these kinds of incidents so it’s impressive that Texas has come up with this law and all of a sudden, we’re going to have a fair amount of data that media, policy people, whomever can use when they’re thinking about these issues.
SH: Right, which brings me to my next question, why did you choose to do this? Why this project? What’s important about it that made you think somebody really needs to take this on?
AW: For one, it seemed like a great opportunity. It’s in the beginning of this data being out there and I think starting when the data is released is a good time to begin with this kind of database …
AW: ... because I don’t really have much of a backlog to work with. But on the other hand, I also think that the data is very important. It’s central to the conversation that’s being had right now. It’s great that the information is out there on the AG’s website but I really think that having it in a more digestible form will eventually be the value of the information.
SH: Good. You’re actually getting this from several data sources. I think the reason you began it was this new data from Eric Johnson’s bill in these reports to the Attorney General, but you pretty quickly found that there were other sources that rounded out that source, so tell us about these other sources that you’re pulling in to your database.
AW: Sure. The database is mostly made up of fields taken directly from the Attorney General’s reports but as I was going through the reports, kind of a narrative element seemed to be lacking a little bit so I found myself Googling news resources to try to find out what happened in these incidents and so because of that, I created some columns that linked to news sources, mostly local sources, up to four different columns, four news reports. Then I also created columns for the victim’s name as recorded by news agencies. Finally, we have a column that takes data from the death-in-custody reports which, of course, only are available when there is a death in custody but there’s this amazing field [in that report] that includes a narrative statement that’s submitted to the Office of the Attorney General. I only have one cell that includes that information so far because, of course, these reports include not only deaths but also injuries. But I’m hoping as we build it out, we’ll be able to include some narrative information from those reports as well.
SH: Good. That narrative field in that AG death in custody database really is an amazing source by comparison to, really, anything else I’ve seen. As soon as I saw how much information was in that by comparison to these fairly minimalist reports, I was astonished.
AW: Right. Well, that kind of brings us to the fact that the reports are great and the data is going to be incredibly useful. but like I said earlier, a lot of it does kind of beg for a narrative version of what happened.
SH: Right. Speaking of which, there has been an effort nationally by these two newspapers, by the Washington Post and the UK Guardian, to do something similar, to start to create a database nationwide of police shootings or police deaths, in the case of the Guardian. The Guardian, I think, began theirs first and did something a little bit more broad, doing basically all deaths in police custody. The Washington Post did only shootings which was probably a wise way to cabin the data because the other becomes fairly sprawling pretty quickly. But how do those data sources relate to yours? Have you compared them? Tell us about that.
AW: Well, of course, they overlap but only to the extent that my database includes deaths. Those databases do not include injuries. Also my database only includes deaths or injuries occurring as a result of shootings. I think it was the Washington Post database that you mentioned is not only inclusive of shootings.
SH: It was the Guardian.
AW: Was it the Guardian? The Washington Post database includes only shootings.
SH: That’s the one.
AW: There is some overlap but the bottom line is the database I’m creating also includes injuries which the other ones do not. Of course, those databases can be used to kind of check the information that we have in our database. For example, whether certain deaths have or have not been reported and I expect as we move forward that that’s something we’ll look into as the extent to which people are reporting the incidents that we’re finding in other resources.
SH: You mentioned the narrative element is important. Why don’t you just give us a few examples of what kind of incidents are showing up in your database? What are you seeing? What are some that stood out?
AW: Sure. One incident that, for me, kind of begged the question of a further narrative was one where it appeared that police officers were called to a residence because of a vicious dog report and a person ended up being shot. I believe the report includes that the person was unarmed. It’s also the only female injured or deceased person that I’ve seen in these reports so I was very curious as to what happened, but of course, the report is limited in what it reports so I’m able to see where it occurred, what brought the police to the scene, a bit of a profile on the victim but actually, that’s also the only report as well that didn’t include the age of the injured or deceased. That’s just an example of one report that would probably benefit from having a narrative field as well.
SH: So there was no media report associated with that particular incident?
AW: None that I could find.
SH: So some woman had the police come to her house on a vicious dog complaint. She got shot and there was no press coverage.
AW: As far as I can tell from the report, I believe that’s what happened.
SH: And we would not know about this at all if it weren’t for this new reporting process from the AG.
SH: Or really, if Amanda Woog hadn’t taken time to go through all of the reports, read them and come here to tell us because obviously no one’s out there trumpeting the results of these reports.
AW: Well, I’m excited to get my database out there so that people hopefully will start looking and will see these reports that kind of beg for certain information to be filled in.
SH: Well I’m glad you’re doing it. They’re not booing; they’re saying, “Woog”. [Laughing.] All right, so you’ve now gone through all of the reports so far that have been submitted to the AG and you found some issues in implementation, some problems or I guess at least concerns that have cropped up as you’ve started to do this. Why don’t you talk about a few of those, starting with the issue of whether or not people are posting these on their website?
AW: Sure. When I first started looking at the reports, one requirement in the new law is that law enforcement agencies, to the extent that they do operate their own websites, that they post these reports on their websites in addition to submitting a report to the Office of the Attorney General which is then posted on the Office of the Attorney General’s website. As I started looking to see where law enforcement agencies were posting these reports on their websites, I noticed that by and large, they were not posting the reports to the websites. That was just an initial issue in the first 45 days or so of implementation. I will say they’re required to post within 30 days of the incident and at that point, for most of the reports that had been submitted, we were still within that 30 day window so it wasn’t as though they were noncompliant but being as they had already sent the reports to the Office of the Attorney General, it kind of indicated to me that they might not be aware that they’re also required to post the report to their website. That just resulted in a bunch of emails being sent to local law enforcement agencies, most of which were responded to in a day or less than that and now about 50% of the agencies who have sent reports to the Office of the Attorney General do have their reports available on their own websites.
SH: And the ones you’ve spoken to just weren’t aware of their new obligations under the law, it sounds like.
AW: Yeah, that was the impression that I was under. Some people were more forthcoming about that than others. I got some calls that said, “Wait, what am I supposed to do?” and then I got others that said, “Yes, we’re in the process of contacting IT.” But I think generally, agencies were probably not aware of that requirement.
SH: Right. Yes, “We’re in the process of contacting IT,” is definitely a euphemism for “We forgot but we’re getting to it.”
AW: Right. Exactly. But I appreciated everyone being very responsive and, like I said, now about 50% of the agencies do have the reports available on their websites.
SH: Well I joke to you but it’s really true that the implementation for this law does appear to be, “Amanda will call you if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do,” so if you’re listening to this out there, police departments, you don’t want her to have to call you so just do it right the first time.
AW: It was actually an overly polite email that was sent.
SH: All right. So what should happen there? If the agencies don’t really understand what’s happening, should the AG step in somehow? How can we fix that?
AW: On the AG’s website right now, the AG is indicating that this is an interim or temporary form that they’ve come up with that law enforcement agencies will use for reporting and so that makes me think that the AG’s office is maybe contemplating or at least could give more guidance or revise the form as necessary to the extent that there are problems with the actual reporting part, they could issue guidance to law enforcement agencies on how exactly to comply with the new law. It seems that, in general, law enforcement agencies know that they have to send these reports to the Office of the Attorney General and they have the reports but they don’t really know of that second requirement, of having them on their own website.
SH: All right. Another issue that you mentioned was that there really isn’t an enforcement mechanism right now for agencies that don’t comply. Now, they seem to be. We don’t really know of that many that haven’t reported, or any I guess. There’s one that reported late after we mentioned them publicly. Parker County, I guess, a couple of days after their deadline filed their report after we mentioned it on Grits. For the most part, we’ve seen compliance. But if someone chose not to, there really isn’t a means to make them. Is that right?
AW: Yeah, well, this exercise that I went through of seeing that agencies weren’t posting the reports and then following up with the agencies kind of pointed to this larger problem, which is what you point to right now: That there isn’t really an enforcement mechanism in the law. The requirement is that the law enforcement agencies submit the reports so a single person isn’t designated as being responsible. In contrast, the Death-in-Custody statute requires, I can’t remember who is identified as the person who must submit the report, but it’s not simply the law enforcement agency. It’s tasked to a single person and not to an entity. In addition, the Death-in-Custody statute also has a criminal penalty tied to noncompliance whereas the statute has neither a civil nor a criminal penalty tied to noncompliance.
SH: Just “Amanda will call you” ...
SH: ... if you don’t comply.
AW: That’s in-between the lines.
SH: Right. Gotcha. Okay. So if they go back and revisit this, that may be something the legislature wants to fix is to give some incentive, whatever that is. It doesn’t have to be a criminal law but just even something where they get their grants docked or whatever it is if you don’t ...
AW: A simple civil penalty would probably be the first step.
SH: Sure. That’s right. That would solve it overnight on the noncompliance problem. If they had to pay even a few hundred bucks, most departments would do it rather than pay that. All right. I guess the last question that sort of plays off that concern is, now that you’ve had a chance to look at a bunch of these reports and have started to put them into a database, what are some of the ways that when the legislature returns in 2017, they may want to improve the data gathering process? One thing that you mentioned to me was, it’s unclear what happens where there are multiple agencies involved in an episode, but also issues about how we define deadly weapon. Tell me a little bit about some of the issues where you’d like to see the data that’s gathered clarified.
AW: Sure. We’re really early on so I think as we move forward, these issues will probably either crystallize as issues or perhaps fall to the wayside, but what I’ve been seeing so far is, as you mentioned, the problem of where you have an incident where multiple officers have shot a single person. You don’t necessarily know whose bullet has ended up hitting somebody but when there are multiple officers shooting, what I’ve seen is law enforcement agencies will submit multiple reports to capture that single incident and I think that’s because on the reporting form there’s really room for only one officer to be reported in the incident and so in order to capture that there were multiple people shooting, you get multiple forms. That’s a problem in a couple of ways. For one, if you go to the Office of the Attorney General’s website, you’ll see that there have been 25 reports that have been submitted but as far as I can tell, I think that probably only reflects 17 – not “only”, but 17 incidents so in the first part, it’s a bit misleading.
SH: This is in a month and a half?
AW: Yes. There’s a 30 day delay because the law enforcement agencies have 30 days to submit the report, but that’s since September 1st.
SH: So some have not been submitted yet. Gotcha.
AW: Right. The other problem that comes along with that not really being able to be captured in a single form right now is that, when I’m looking at two different forms that appear to be referencing the same incident, for example, you have the same address, you have the same age of the injured or deceased person, you have the same race or ethnicity of the injured or deceased person, I kind of have to infer that this is the same incident that’s being referred to. But of course, there’s always a possibility that two separate people who were the same age and the same race or ethnicity were both shot during a single shooting incident at the same address or on the same date so it kind of opens it up for interpretive error and that could definitely be a point that could be clarified. You could start with the Attorney General’s forms. I think there is something that the Office of the Attorney General could do to address that in the form but it might be something for the legislature to think about next session as well. The second thing that you mentioned was the deadly weapon question. In the report right now, there’s a question about whether the injured or deceased had a deadly weapon on him or her and it’s just a yes or no question. Texas law is a bit notorious for the interpretation of “deadly weapon”, at least when you’re talking about a deadly weapon finding as you know.
SH: Right. The vicious dog was probably a deadly weapon.
AW: Exactly. I think a vicious dog could be considered a deadly weapon so I think it would help people who are gathering this information or who are thinking about these kinds of incidents to know what is considered a deadly weapon in those incidents. I found, by looking at news reports, I think it’s only been either a firerarm or a car, at least when the information is available through news reports but I think it would be helpful to have that information included on the form.
SH: Right. Then I guess the last thing was it’s hard to understand why there isn’t some narrative component on these forms the way there is in the death in custody [database] because that’s really the most useful part of that information. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get that narrative piece included in this one as well.
AW: Right. Yeah, like you said, it’s already in another form that’s being used by law enforcement to report to the Attorney General so I don’t think it would take that much creative thinking to have it included on this form as well.
SH: Right. All right. Is there anything else that our readers should know about your project before we let you go?
AW: I look forward to people using it and thinking about it. I look forward to feedback and I’m excited to see what kind of projects this new information can help spur.
SH: All right. Well, thank you for coming to chat with me.
AW: Thank you Scott.