Does the Washington Post Not Update Their Police Shooting Database When New Information Is Available?
I discovered something interesting yesterday: there is a chance that the Washington Post database of shootings does not get updated to reflect new information — meaning that, for example, shootings where a suspect is described as “unarmed” may not be updated to reflect later evidence showing they actually were armed. (The converse could happen too, I suppose, although such stories tend to get national attention anyway.) I’ll have to do some research to see if I stumbled on an isolated example or if this a pervasive problem, but it’s worth sharing what I found with a promise to investigate further.
Yesterday, in a discussion with Tim Miller about my newsletter on the Adam Toledo shooting, Tim cited statistics about police shootings in 2019. I accessed the WaPo database, which is well known as a universally used reference for data on police shootings, and responded to him. The precise details of our conversation are outside the scope of this post, but the discussion caused me to look up how many people killed by police in 2019 (999) were considered armed with some kind of weapon by the database (925). I then hit the racial breakdown (26 dead “unarmed” white folks, 12 dead “unarmed” black folks, 11 dead “unarmed” Hispanics, and a small handful of others). Scrolling through the 12 dead “unarmed” black folks, I picked one at random to look at the facts of their case, to see what the Post considered to be “unarmed” and what the circumstances of the case were that led to the shooting. The name I selected at random was that of Channara Tom Pheap:
The entry has a link to a relatively uninformative news story from the Knoxville News Sentinel:
One person was shot and killed and a Knoxville police officer injured after the two got into a physical altercation Monday afternoon following a hit-and-run crash in the 1700 block of Merchant Drive.
Tammy Mattina, a Knoxville Police Department sergeant and spokeswoman, said the officer was responding to a hit-and-run around 5:40 p.m. when the officer and the suspect got into a physical altercation that led to the officer firing shots.
Then I decided to Google the suspect’s name to see if anything new had developed since that initial story. Result number one on Google was this article: Knoxville police officer was justified in killing Channara ‘Philly’ Pheap, prosecutors say:
Knoxville Police Department Officer Dylan Williams was justified in fatally shooting Channara “Philly” Pheap in August, prosecutors announced Thursday.
At a news conference, Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen said her office reviewed a slew of evidence — including crime scene photographs, police cruiser video and five eyewitness statements — that all together corroborated Williams’ account he shot Pheap because he feared for his life when Pheap choked him, grabbed his Taser and used it on him during a struggle at a local apartment complex.
“Based upon all the witness statements, the forensic proof and certainly the Taser, we believe that at the time (Williams) did believe that his life was in danger and that Mr. Pheap was in fact going to kill him,” Allen said. “Therefore after a review of all those facts, we’ve determined that it was in fact a justifiable shooting.”
More details of the encounter are described later in the story:
What happened next was not caught on video. Pheap ran to the side of the police cruiser in the parking lot. Williams twice threatened to shock Pheap with his Taser. The officer said at that point, Pheap turned around and put his hands in the air — only to lunge forward and grab the front of the Taser moments later.
Williams said Pheap wrested the Taser from his grasp as he tried and failed to free his police dog from the back seat of his cruiser. Pheap fired the Taser at the officer, and Williams said he felt electricity in his arms and neck.
“I thought he was gonna kill me. I thought he’s gonna shoot this at me, he’s gonna incapacitate me and he’s gonna be able to take my gun and shoot me,” Williams told investigators, according to the memo. “I had time to think, I’m gonna die and thinking about my wife and kid that I’m never gonna see again.”
Williams fired two shots with his service weapon. Prosecutors said Pheap then ran, bleeding, around a nearby dumpster and fell to the ground.
Does that sound like an unarmed man to you?
Whatever the Post thought when it first entered Pheap into its database as an example of an “unarmed” police shooting victim, it’s hard to believe those criteria would apply when Pheap had armed himself with the officer’s Taser before he was shot.
Another weird detail was evident. I work in Long Beach, which contains the largest population of Cambodians outside Cambodia. I have prosecuted many cases involving Cambodian gang members, and based on that experience, the name “Channara Tom Pheap” sounded Cambodian to me. I was curious how this man had been classified as “black” by the WaPo and read this second story to see if I could find anything about that. All I could find was this:
“Hey, do you drive a car down here?” Williams asked, according to audio and video released for the first time at the news conference Thursday.
“No,” Pheap said.
Williams used his radio to ask for a description of the suspect in the hit-and-run.
“Light to medium skin, black male or Hispanic,” came the response.
“Oh, what do you know,” Williams said to Pheap, who was of Cambodian descent.
Due to sloppiness and a failure to update the database, what the Washington Post database describes as a shooting of an unarmed black man turns out to be a justified shooting of a Cambodian man who grabbed a Taser from a police officer and tased the officer with it, before the officer shot the man and killed him.
All of these details were available in 2019. But someone consulting the Washington Post police shootings database today, in 2021, still sees Pheap listed as one of 12 unarmed black men killed by police in 2019.
I’ll be looking into this further to see whether this is an isolated case or whether the database has other failures to update.