A Year of Reckoning: Police Fatally Shoot Nearly 1,000

Kimberly Kindy et al., Washington Post, December 26, 2015

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In a year-long study, The Washington Post found that the kind of incidents that have ignited protests in many U.S. communities–most often, white police officers killing unarmed black men–represent less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings. Meanwhile, The Post found that the great majority of people who died at the hands of the police fit at least one of three categories: they were wielding weapons, they were suicidal or mentally troubled, or they ran when officers told them to halt.

The Post sought to compile a record of every fatal police shooting in the nation in 2015, something no government agency had done. {snip}

Race remains the most volatile flash point in any accounting of police shootings. Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year, The Post’s database shows. In the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number–3 in 5–of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic.

Regardless of race, in more than a quarter of cases, the fatal encounter involved officers pursuing someone on foot or by car–making chases one of the most common scenarios in the data. Some police chiefs and training experts say more restrictive rules on when to give chase could prevent unnecessary shootings.

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The landscape of police shootings is surprisingly thinly explored. The FBI is charged with keeping statistics on such shootings, but a Post analysis of FBI data showed that fewer than half of the nation’s 18,000 police departments report their incidents to the agency.

The Post documented well more than twice as many fatal shootings this year as the average annual tally reported by the FBI over the past decade. The FBI and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics now acknowledge that their data collection has been deeply flawed. FBI Director James B. Comey called his agency’s database “unacceptable.” Both agencies have launched efforts to create new systems for documenting fatalities.

The FBI will replace its current program with a “near real-time” database to be made public by 2017, said Stephen L. Morris, a senior FBI official whose division is responsible for collecting crime data.

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The Post’s database, compiled from interviews, police reports, local news accounts and other sources, tracked more than a dozen details about each killing, including the events that led to the fatal encounter, whether the slain person was armed, and demographic data on each person. {snip}

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It remains unusual for police to face criminal charges in fatal shootings, but the indictment rate in such cases more than tripled this year–a striking shift in the willingness of prosecutors to charge officers.

The Post found that an average of five officers per year have been indicted on felony charges over the previous decade; this year, 18 officers have been charged with felonies including murder, manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.

Such accusations rarely stick, however. Only 11 of the 65 officers charged in fatal shootings over the past decade were convicted.

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