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?”
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021. Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.
The story of al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.
Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi
Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”
Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?
“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”
Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:
“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”
Joe Dyke heads the investigation team at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars Anas Baba is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Gaza