In the weeks after George Floyd was murdered, US police flooded the streets in more than 100 cities with some form of teargas, according to an analysis by the New York Times.
A later analysis of 7,305 protest events in all 50 states, involving millions of attendees during May and June, found that police used teargas or related substances in about 183 of these events, or 2.5% of them. Experts called the use of teargas a dangerous choice during a pandemic involving a respiratory disease; hundreds of protesters in one city have reported lasting health effects, including abnormal menstrual cycles.
The Guardian selected 18 police departments that used teargas for a closer examination of their documented uses of force since 2019, suspecting they may have troubling interactions with residents more broadly. We turned to the FBI for this data, because the bureau was tasked with collecting it after the first wave of protests against police killings of Black people that began in 2014.
Only half responded to our requests, and those that did sent us back extraordinarily varied data points, making comparisons across departments or years virtually impossible. Only two sent back substantial data.
Among police departments that sent us information, there was a striking pattern: a tendency to use force at far higher rates against people who were not white, especially Black people.
More than half a decade after Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson were killed by police, the public is still unable to access this information for the majority of US police departments, raising concerns about the ability of the nation’s top law enforcement agency to institute even the barest transparency reforms.
In 2015, the Guardian and the Washington Post began tracking killings by police, leaning on local news coverage. Both efforts represented an embarrassment for James Comey, the then FBI director, who called it “unacceptable” that the FBI did not have its own count of similar events.
The bureau wanted to collect deeper data that included not just killings, but also serious injuries and all officer firearm discharges, according to Gina Hawkins, the police chief of the Fayetteville police department in North Carolina and the chair of the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection Task Force.
“We realized the only data reporting on how often citizens died as a result of an encounter with an officer was based off media coverage, which is sporadic,” Hawkins, the taskforce’s third chairperson, told the Guardian. “There are a lot of smaller agencies that don’t get a lot of media coverage, so you may not know what’s happening there.”
The program stalled after Donald Trump became president, Hawkins said, but in 2018 the FBI released a summary of information it collected through a pilot program. So far in 2021, the FBI says, 40% of law enforcement agencies have reported officers’ use-of-force data on a monthly basis. The agency publicly discloses the departments currently participating.
But the actual use-of-force data submitted to the FBI by police departments is not available for public review. The FBI says it won’t release this information until 80% of agencies in the country participate.
Hawkins says the FBI is closing in on 50% but because the program is voluntary, there’s no guarantee that police departments will continue sending data to the FBI. An FBI spokesperson told the Guardian in an email that the bureau attempts to raise awareness among police about the program at conferences and digital advertising through various law enforcement organizations.
Yet even Hawkins is surprised at how long the effort has dragged on.
“I never imagined in 2016, when I started, this would be going on in 2021,” Hawkins says. “I never imagined it’d be going on, and we’d still be establishing the format, all the work that’s gone into it, I never thought it’d take this long.”
Because the FBI has not released any force data it has collected, the Guardian attempted to verify the effectiveness of the program by asking police for the same use-of-force reports they sent to the FBI. We also sent a records request for this exact data to the FBI, which declined to provide it.
Though the data we received was incomplete, it still indicated that police used aggressive force against Black and Native American people most often in cities where police used chemical munitions to disperse protesters last year..
In Asheville, North Carolina, for example, which maintains an open data portal that includes 136 unique use of force events involving police dating back to 2018, Black people were 3.3 times more likely to have force used against them compared with white people. The city’s definition of “force” is broader than the FBI’s, and includes physical force but also Taser, showing a firearm, showing a Taser, pepper spray, gunshots and using a baton.
There was also a spike in use-of-force events in Asheville last June, around the time that protests there began. Asheville police deployed chemical munitions several times against protesters, which it considers to be a use of force.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, officers used teargas and pepper spray against protesters in the days following the murder of Floyd. The department documented 89 unique use-of-force events in 2019 and 2020. “Use-of-force” was defined by Green Bay police as various grappling and physical strikes; the use of Tasers; the use of dogs; the use of batons; the use of teargas or pepper spray; and shootings. A quarter of all use-of-force incidents were committed by the same six officers.
The information we received from other police departments, while limited, also show disparities in how police applied force against Black people.
For example, the Brockton police department in Massachusetts – which one state representative accused of using teargas indiscriminately and violently – sent us documentation for just one incident in which officers shot a Black man in 2019.
Similarly, in Omaha, Nebraska, where video shows police using teargas at point blank range against protesters sitting on the ground, police reported killing three people in 2019 and 2020 by shooting them, all Black men.
The St Paul police department in Minnesota reported six shootings in 2019 and 2020 total, half of them against Black men. Police used gas many times against protesters in the Minneapolis-St Paul region last year, though it was not always clear which police force deployed it.
The Spokane police department in Washington and the Wichita police department in Kansas, two cities where activists told the Guardian that chemical munitions against protesters were rare, only provided aggregated data primarily involving officers that shot someone. St Louis police in Missouri, where a judge in 2014 ordered limits on the use of gas amid protests then, provided similarly limited data.
San Diego police sent us links to two websites containing information for some use-of-force events over the last several decades, disclosures mandated by California state law. At one point during protests last year, officers fired a teargas canister inside a county administration building, allegedly by mistake.
Five police departments did not respond substantively to our requests. Three departments either rejected our requests or imposed costs that were prohibitively expensive.
Since 2015, activist researchers with Campaign Zero have tried to track police killings nationwide through their Mapping Police Violence project, relying on a mix of available media reports, criminal records databases and public records to identify the race of victims. It estimates that it has accurately tracked about 92% of killings by police since 2013.
Mapping Police Violence has filed public records requests to about 500 of the largest police departments in the country, according to co-founder Sam Sinyangwe. There are about 18,000 in total.
Among the 100 largest departments in the nation, according to Mapping Police Violence’s analysis of killings between January 2013 and December 2020, Black people accounted for 38% of killings by police despite only being about 21% of the population, and 44% of unarmed people killed by the 100 largest city police departments were Black.
Drilling down further into that data presents its own challenges, especially when police have so much discretion over reporting it. For example, Sinyangwe says, the Dallas police department publishes officer shooting data online but considers some victims as being armed with their hands. Dallas police teargassed protesters last year.
“We’re seeing how some police are sharing data in a way that is designed to obscure violence – that’s another big worry,” Sinyangwe says. Such machinations could make the FBI’s attempts at tracking use-of-force more unreliable.
“It’s a waste of time, we already have more data than they have let alone what [the FBI is] sharing to the public,” Sinyangwe says.
Hawkins defended the FBI’s program.
“We have definitions and clarifications, and it is a true apples-to-apples comparison,” Hawkins says. “So, if someone says they’re doing a better job than the FBI, then they need to be on the taskforce and say how they were able to collect it.”
Several states have passed laws mandating police departments disclose when their officers use force since 2015, including Texas, Illinois, New Jersey and Minnesota. But even if the US’s thousands of police departments suddenly started reporting use-of-force in greater detail, this only tells part of the story – and could crowd out discussion of the racist conditions that lead to police encounters in the first place.
“Without the interaction data, the initial data of when a cop interacted with an individual, it’s hard to understand any outcome data, including arrests and use of force,” says Abdul Rad, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Oxford who studies obstacles to police accountability.
“It’s missing that first part of the picture critical to understanding bias in policing, and why.”
One study published by the American Political Science Association last year found that if police officers are racially discriminating who they choose to investigate and apprehend, and if that discrimination isn’t acknowledged, then any analysis –including the FBI’s data collection program – could “severely underestimate levels of racially biased policing or mask discrimination entirely”.
At the same time, there’s plenty of research showing force used by police is more lethal against Black people. In addition, the areas where Black people live – an arrangement resulting from 20th-century federal policies amounting to apartheid – are exposed to anti-social patrols far more often than majority-white neighborhoods.
Why, then, is it important to obtain more data on how police use force, when the grim reality of policing is already so well-known by a majority of Americans?
“Transparency is important to help build support for what solutions should look like,” Sinyangwe says. “It can help you understand which departments are shooting people at higher rates than the national average, which departments have larger disparities in policing – all of this is critical to building support for and thinking about what policy interventions should look like to address the issues.
“But the police won’t police themselves, so how do we get that data and convert it into policy that results in changes in practice?”
Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.
The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.
The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.
“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.
The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.
At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.
Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.
On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.
Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.
A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.
Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.
Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.
Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.
“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.
“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”
Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.
“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.
Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.
Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.
The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.