The Washington Post's police shooting database appears to need an update

Yesterday the blogger known as Patterico discovered something pretty interesting about the Washington Post’s police shooting database.

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.

Specifically, Patterico looked at police shootings of unarmed suspects in 2019 and noticed this one:

As you can see, the death of Channara Tom Pheap is listed as one of 12 police shootings of unarmed black men in 2019. And if you follow the source links at the bottom you’ll be taken to three different reports all published within two days of the shooting. But as Patterico points out, no one was really sure what had happened at that point in time. The investigation was ongoing and no conclusions had been reached.

However, if you do a search of the names involved in the case now you quickly arrive at this story published a few months later: “Knoxville police officer was justified in killing Channara ‘Philly’ Pheap, prosecutors say.” Weeks after the shooting the prosecutor gave an hour long press conference spelling out all of the results of the investigation. And the conclusion reached was that the the shooting was justifed and, significantly, that Channara Tom Pheap was not unarmed at the time of the shooting because he’d taken the officer’s taser and fired it at him.

The shooting, which took place on Aug. 26, 2019, started with a hit and run investigation. Someone drove into a car being driven by an 81-year-old woman and then drove off. Another driver followed the fleeing car and called the police to report it. Officer Dylan Williams arrived and encountered Pheap on a stairwell of an apartment complex.

Williams told investigators Pheap appeared nervous and fidgety as the officer repeatedly asked him if he had anything in his pockets. As Williams began to pat him down, he began to fight the officer, the investigation found.

Video footage from Williams’ cruiser shows the two men wrestling in a grassy area between two apartment buildings. It had been raining, and the ground was muddy. At one point, Pheap managed to roll on top of Williams.

“Officer Williams described that while Pheap was on top of him, Pheap used his arm or hand to push on Officer Williams’ throat, making it difficult to breathe,” reads the memo from Allen’s office. “Officer Williams stated that this was the first point at which he feared for his life.”

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.

Williams fired two shots, one of which hit Pheap in the back below his shoulder blade. However, the bullet traveled across his body, indicating that he hadn’t been shot in the back but was likely turning away when the shot was fired. He ran a short distance, collapsed and died of his injuries. There were five witnesses at the scene who saw some or all of the incident. Their statements were not all consistent, but cumulatively the evidence supported the officer’s account:

“This event was very traumatic. It happened very quickly,” Allen said. “Their statements are somewhat contradictory. Some of them contradict themselves within their own statements.”

But the statements, taken together along with other evidence, support Williams’ account of the shooting, Allen said. The evidence includes crime scene photographs showing the locations of various Taser components in the parking lot, audio and cruiser video, data downloaded from the Taser, tests that confirmed the presence of Pheap’s DNA on the Taser cartridge and photographs of Williams after the struggle. The officer was left with a muddied uniform, scrapes and bruises and a Taser probe caught in his duty belt.

The point of all of this is that the Post’s database as it stands now appears to be misleading in at least three important ways. First, a full investigation concluded the shooting was justified, something not reflected in the stories linked by the Post. I’m not suggesting that was done intentionally. It may simply be that the Post hasn’t updated this since it was first added. But at this point, intentionally or not, it is misleading.

Secondly, the man who was shot in this incident, Channara Tom Pheap was not unarmed. Evidence showed he took the officer’s taser and fired it, hitting the officer. So while he may have been unarmed initially, he later armed himself and that’s what led to the shooting. In short, the Post has him in the wrong category.

Thirdly, and this is the oddest of all, Pheap is not black. Several stories about the shooting note that he was “of Cambodian descent.” There’s a photo of him which shows he looks Cambodian and had medium brown skin. He could possibly be mistake for Hispanic but I don’t think anyone would assume he was black if they got a good look at him.

Here’s how Patterico sums it up: “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.”

And given that we’re talking about just 12 shootings in this category nationwide over an entire year, the fact that this shooting doesn’t belong in this category for two separate reasons is significant. It also makes you wonder how many other entries in the Post’s widely referenced database have errors like this.

Finally, here’s the prosecutor’s full explanation of the shooting and why it was justified.