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1,000+ People Died After Police Encounters Involving Nonlethal Tactics, Investigation Involving UMD Finds

AP Project Into Use of Force Included 200+ Merrill College Students, Faculty, Staff

By Philip Merrill College of Journalism Staff


UMD journalism students worked with the Associated Press to help document more than 1,000 cases of people killed in encounters with police who were using tactics that were supposed to be nonlethal from 2012-21.

Photo by iStock

More than 1,000 people were killed over a decade as a result of police encounters using tactics intended to be nonlethal, according to a three-year Associated Press project that included the University of Maryland, Arizona State University and PBS’ “Frontline.”

The team led by AP journalists documented deaths in the U.S. from 2012-21 involving police tactics intended to stop people without killing them — physical holds, stun guns, body blows and other means — often in instances where people were unarmed and not a threat to public safety. Hundreds of the cases were a result of poor training or officers not following best safety practices.

The investigation, “Lethal Restraint: An investigation documenting police use of force,” began publishing Thursday and will continue rolling out over the next several months.

"AP found that the federal government failed to effectively track non-shooting deaths, so it worked with students at our Howard Center for Investigative Journalism to create an unprecedented, national database that allows the public to understand the full scope of the issue,” said UMD Howard Center Director Kathy Best, who led the UMD efforts with Data Editor Sean Mussenden.

Among the key findings, deadly encounters took place in nearly every state. The deceased lived not just in big cities, but also in suburbs and small towns. White people of non-Hispanic descent were the largest group, but deaths disproportionately affected Black people.

They came from all walks of life: a poet, a nurse, a saxophone player in a mariachi band, a truck driver, a sales director, a rodeo clown and even a few off-duty law enforcement officers. The most common location of the encounter was in or near their own home. They ranged in age from 15 to 95; nearly all were men. Many were experiencing a mental health or drug crisis.

While not all cases involved excessive force, medical officials cited law enforcement as causing or contributing to about half of the deaths. In many others, significant police force went unmentioned and drugs or pre-existing health conditions were blamed instead.

In 740 of the 1,036 cases, including the 2020 death of George Floyd, officers held the person in what is known as prone restraint, placing them face down and, in some cases, applying pressure on their back. Police body cameras recorded “I can’t breathe” in dozens of deaths reporters reviewed, from an Arizona parking lot to the front yard of a rural Georgia home.

In some of the deaths, the narratives in police records and autopsy reports didn’t match what was captured on cameras or witnessed by bystanders.

Police said they are often responding to volatile and sometimes violent situations, and deaths are rare.

The federal government has struggled for years to count these deaths, and the little information it collects is often kept from the public and highly incomplete at best. No more than a third of the cases the AP identified are listed in federal mortality data as involving law enforcement at all.

The Howard Centers at UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and Arizona State University first began collaborating with AP in spring 2022 on the national investigation. It involved 205 Merrill students, faculty and staff. A rotating team of data journalists helped AP reporters identify newsworthy patterns that helped shape AP’s reporting and produced findings for publication.

The UMD team built custom software tools to make AP’s reporters more productive, allowing them to more easily surface relevant facts from a massive repository of digital documents. Building off early work by data journalists at Arizona State University, the UMD team built a custom web application with thousands of distinct pages that integrated data collected by AP and the Howard Centers, digital text documents, video and other information.

More than 160 UMD students filed the nearly 7,000 requests for government documents and body-camera footage that fed the project’s master database.

“Absent our collaboration with the Howard Center at UMD, it’s hard to see how AP could have pulled off ‘Lethal Restraint’ — certainly not at the level we have,” said Justin Pritchard, an editor with AP’s global investigations team who led the project.

The UMD Howard Center’s reporters zeroed in on Georgia, a state with a blend of urban and rural communities that has relatively good access to public records. Reporters examined details of the state’s 30 non-shooting deaths from 2012 through 2021 and interviewed dozens of law enforcement officials, family members and lawyers to understand how those deaths occurred. The resulting stories will be published in April.

The project includes a dynamic visual story, an interactive database, traditional stories and a documentary from “Frontline” scheduled to air April 30.

The UMD Howard Center’s work was supported by the Scripps Howard Fund and the Park Foundation.



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