U.S. police have shot and killed 385 people during the first five months of this year, according to a new analysis, a grim tally that aims to put a more realistic figure against a federal estimate that is considered to be significantly underreported. Out of that total, one in six victims were unarmed, most were black or Hispanic, and officers were charged in less than 1 percent of cases, the analysis found.
Using a variety of sources, including police reports, local news and one-to-one interviews, reporters from the Washington Post calculated that police officers in the U.S. have shot and killed an average of more than two people a day since the beginning of 2015. That figure is more than twice the rate tallied by the federal government over the past decade, a count that officials concede is incomplete, the newspaper said.
“We are never going to reduce the number of police shootings if we don’t begin to accurately track this information,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving law enforcement.
The Post analysis comes as a national debate is raging over the police use of deadly force, especially against minorities, in the wake of several high-profile police killings of unarmed black Americans over the past year, from Eric Garner in New York City last July and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the next month to 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland last November and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., this past April. These incidents have called attention to, among other things, the lack of a proper count of how many people are killed by police officers each year — a problem that former Attorney General Eric Holder referred to as “unacceptable.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps a database of what are deemed “justifiable homicides” by police officers. Records over the past decade show about 400 fatal police shootings a year, or an average of 1.1 deaths a day. However, these records are based entirely on a voluntary reporting system that many police departments don’t participate in, so the actual number of officer-involved killings is thought to be markedly higher. As the Post reported earlier this year, “Several independent trackers, primarily journalists and academics who study criminal justice, insist the accurate number of people shot and killed by police officers each year is consistently upwards of 1,000 each year.”
The Post‘s analysis appears to confirm those independent estimates, finding that the daily death toll for 2015 — an average of 2.6 as of Friday — far exceeds the FBI’s count of 1.1 daily police killings. At that pace, police will have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people by the end of the year, the paper said.
In most of the shootings, the victim was armed with some sort of weapon, such as a gun or knife. Still, 13 percent of victims were unarmed, while more than 3 percent had a toy gun at the time of the shooting.
Reflecting well-documented patterns of racial bias in policing, African Americans were targeted by police at disproportionate rates, with black people killed at three times the rate of their white counterparts and other minorities when adjusting for overall population, the Post found. The racial disparity was even greater among unarmed victims compared to armed victims. And the vast majority of all victims — 365 out of 385 — were men.
A separate count released on Monday by the Guardian — which, unlike the Post, looked at all killings, not just shootings — found that 464 people have been killed by police so far this year, 102 of whom were unarmed. The Guardian estimated that roughly two-thirds of unarmed victims killed by police were minorities, compared with nearly half of all victims. A similar dynamic was found in the Post analysis, with blacks making up the vast majority of unarmed victims.
The Post estimated that roughly half the shootings were during police responses to domestic disturbances or other complex social situations, such as a homeless person behaving erratically or a boyfriend threatening violence. The other half were during responses to non-domestic crimes, including robberies, or routine police activity, like serving warrants. Beyond race, victims had some other factors in common: most were poor, many were mentally ill or emotionally troubled, and some were fleeing when police shot and killed them.
Some of the shootings were legally justified, including a few cases in which cops killed armed assailants who were threatening the lives of others. Police only have to reasonably perceive a deadly threat to open fire, based on two Supreme Court rulings from the 1980s.
But for reformers and anti-violence advocates, the question isn’t necessarily what’s legal or justifiable — but what’s preventable. Current and former police chiefs and other criminal justice officials told the Post that police must begin to accept responsibility for the killings, saying that many deaths could be blamed on poor policing.
“We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable,” Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the US Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Post. Police “need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun,” he added. “When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot.”