Graphics by Nate Barton
After another series of police shootings in the U.S., four more people are dead in as little as three weeks. Two common trends among the four shootings are that all three victims were either Black or Hispanic males and all four incidents sparked protests in the respective cities where the shootings occurred. But the similarities may end there.
Sept. 16, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an unarmed man was shot and killed on on the highway. The officer involved in the shooting is being charged with manslaughter, according to an article titled “Manslaughter Charge for Tulsa Officer Who Killed Black Driver,” published Sept. 22 by The New York Times.
Sept. 20, in Charlotte, North Carolina, a suspect who was originally believed to have been unarmed was shot and killed. After more investigation, it was determined that he was actually carrying an illegally purchased 9mm handgun, according to an article titled, “What We Know About the Details of the Police Shooting in Charlotte,” published Sept. 25 by The New York Times.
Oct. 3 and Oct 4, in Los Angeles, California, two men were shot and killed by police. One was carrying a loaded semi-automatic handgun and the other a toy-replica with the orange safety tip painted black to appear more real, according to an article titled “Los Angeles Chief Defends 2 Fatal Weekend Shootings,” published Oct. 3 by ABC News.
“There’s several really questionable shootings,” Julie Tate, a researcher who has been with The Washington Post since 2002, said, “and the Black Lives Matter movement has really propelled people’s opinion of it — or just their interest in it — and I think that is both the public and the media’s perspective.”
Anyone who has been personally affected by police violence has certainly been focused on this issue, but the attention of the general public and the media elevated significantly after the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray.
“The fatal shootings in Ferguson, Cleveland, and elsewhere have put the consequences of use of force front and center in the national news,” according to the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the result of a 90-day effort to identify better policing practices in the United States.
With more than 1,700 fatal police shootings on the books since January 2015, according to the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database, the need for examination of these events is more important than ever before. Along with that, there is a need for comprehensive data about these shootings, including factors like race, mental illness, and whether the victims were armed or unarmed.
“We live in a country where we count everything,” Wesley Lowery, a national reporter for The Washington Post, said. “We know how many barrels of corn there are in Iowa, we know how many shark attacks there were off the coast of California last year, so it doesn’t make any sense to me that, in a comprehensive way, we don’t know who, and how many people, are being killed by the police.”
So, starting Jan. 1, 2015, Lowery and a team of researchers from the Washington Post began to comb through news media, social media and LexisNexis to find the most accurate data available on police shootings in the U.S. The team is still cataloguing all information available about the victims. And starting in 2016, with the hope of gaining more information about the officers involved, the team put in almost 600 open-records requests to police departments across the country.
“There are 18,000 local and state police departments across the country, and each one of them can report to the FBI whether or not they have shot and killed people that year, but the reporting is voluntary,” Steven Rich, database editor for investigations for The Washington Post, said.
The FBI, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Justice all collect this data, Rich said. However, Rich and his team were able to aggregate from these organizations just didn’t paint a complete picture.
After the combined effort of Lowery, Rich and two researchers, Jennifer Jenkins and Julie Tate, the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database was born, providing what the team described as an accurate, comprehensive unbiased look at the hard data on police shootings across the U.S.
Everyone has the right to this information, Lowery said.
“These are people who are being killed by state agents, by the police, with taxpayer guns and taxpayer bullets and these are taxpayers,” he said.
While on the ground in Ferguson, when things were at their worst, Lowery — who reports specifically on issues of justice, race and law enforcement — said he heard a lot of different claims about the issue of police violence but no definitive information about what the problem actually was.
“You had one set of people saying, ‘Young, Black men are being executed in the streets every day,’ and another set of people saying, ‘No, these police shootings never happen, and when they do, the person had it coming,’ — and we were incapable of answering which of those was true,” Lowery said.
HOW DO THE NUMBERS ADD UP?
Even though the rate of yearly police shootings is a fraction of the homicide and suicide rates in this country, according to data from the CDC, the focus of the public and the media remains on the police.
“Police shootings have nothing to do with violent crime,” Lowery said. “There’s no correlation to them whatsoever; they are inherently random acts. It’s not that in places where things are more violent the police kill more people, it’s that the police everywhere kill people.”
Campaign Zero, a policy reform platform that integrates community demands and policy recommendations from research organizations and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing with the hope of ending police violence in America, published nearly the same findings in their “2015 Police Violence Report.” Campaign Zero grew out of the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, which started as a hashtag gone viral after George Zimmerman (not a police officer) was acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
“While some have blamed violent crime for being responsible for police violence in some communities, data shows that high levels of violent crime in cities did not appear to make it any more or less likely for police departments to kill people,” according to Campaign Zero’s report.
In 2015, there were a total of 991 police shooting fatalities, and so far in 2016, that number has just passed 736. In 2014, there were 15,809 homicides and 42,773 suicides in the United States. The projected number of homicides and suicides for 2015 and 2016 are around the same, according to the CDC.
Chicago alone has seen more than 500 homicides this year already and is on pace to break 700, giving it the highest homicide rate in the country and already surpassing last year’s total of 491, according to a visual guide created by Amanda Wills and Sergio Hernandez titled “500 homicides. 9 months. 1 American city,” published by CNN. So far this year the entire state of Illinois has had only 20 fatal police shootings. In California, as of Oct. 1, there was a total of 97 police shootings, according to Fatal Force. This compared to just the city of Los Angeles which, as of Sept. 1, has had 182 homicides, according to an article titled “Chicago has had more homicides this year than New York and Los Angeles combined,” published by the Washington Post
“It has literally nothing to do with whether you have a ton of crime or not,” Lowery said, “the highest rates of police shootings are in Kern County, California, near San Bernardino — and Oklahoma City.”
Police shootings are less about the population density of a specific group and more about the actions of the individual, Ralph Brown, the legislative consultant and public information officer for the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training in California (POST), said in an interview. For example, women represent 50.8 percent of the population in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but only 4 percent of the country’s police shooting victims.
Women are just typically less violent than men, Brown said. “We don’t control who creates the interaction and causes the officer’s attention, we just respond to it.”
“There’s clearly racial disparities,” Lowery said. “It’s clear that Black people are being killed at rates that are far disproportionate to not only their national population but to their population in the places where the shootings are happening.”
HOW DOES RACE FACTOR IN?
“People of color especially, have said forever that they are having these interactions with police, and none of us believed them,” Lowery said. “And now we have cell phone cameras that are showing us that these people weren’t making it up.”
At first glance, the data from last year shows that, of the 991 police shooting victims in this country, 50 percent were White, 26 percent were Black, 17 percent were Hispanic, and the race of the remaining 7 percent was listed as “other” or “unknown.” The overwhelming majority of the U.S. population also consists of those three race categories: 61.6 percent White, 17.6 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 13.3 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 2015 data for California breaks down like this: Of the 188 total police shooting fatalities, 76 were Hispanic, 56 were White, 34 were Black, and 22 were listed as “other” or “unknown.” So far, the 2016 data for California paints roughly the same picture; the majority of police shooting victims have been Hispanic, then White, then Black. A 2014 Pew Research study showed that Hispanics and Latinos are now the dominate race in California, making up 39 percent of the state’s population, according to Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014‑15 Budget Summary.
Looking at the whole picture as the project took shape, Rich said there were a number of areas that were shocking or concerning, and others that weren’t all that difficult to believe.
“I think there were a few surprising things in there; one is that they do shoot an overwhelming number of unarmed Black men,” Rich said. “You think that it might be overblown, but it’s really not. But in the grand scheme of things, too, most of the people, like the vast majority of people, that are shot and killed by police are either attacking the police or have attacked someone else with a gun. And that wasn’t as necessarily surprising as it was a change of pace for the narrative that was going on.”
Rich was referring to the 36 unarmed Black males shot and killed in 2015. The next highest “unarmed” group last year was White males (31), and, as of September this year, 13 more unarmed Black men were killed, as well as, 17 White men, making them the highest “unarmed” group so far in 2016.
The other data point Rich noted was that out of the 991 people shot by the police in 2015, 730 were categorized as “attack in progress,” or physically attacking the officer of another person, and 782 were in possession of a “deadly weapon,” such as a firearm or other object designed or adapted for the purpose of inflicting death or serious physical injury. The data from 2016 tells mostly the same story: Of the 736 victims, 579 were using either a gun, knife or vehicle as weapon when they were shot by the police.
“The strange number of things people are armed with when police encountered them is also kind of surprising … there’s probably more than 70 different objects we have in here that people are holding when they’re shot, ranging from a rock to a gun,” Tate said.
The causative factors behind police shootings are tough to pinpoint, Rich said, even with such a large amount of comprehensive data.
“We’re seeing pretty much all of the same things we were seeing last year,” he said. “They’re shooting Black people at the same rate, they’re shooting White people at the same rate. People are armed at the same rate, people are unarmed at the same rate, and so it’s not clear.”
The importance of having this information is to not only move beyond the “conventional knowledge” of the topic, but also to shed light on other areas of the issue, Tate said. Issues include police training, especially when it comes to difficult situations like ones involving mental illness or recognizing a toy weapon.
HOW ARE OFFICERS BEING TRAINED?
“What we also know is that it’s a training issue; police in the United States of America are not trained that they can run away or they can step backward,” Lowery said. “There’s this real question of de-escalation and what they should be doing in the first place.”
Police training starts at the academy, where curriculum from Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training in California (POST) is handed down and then taught to prospective recruits. As for the California Highway Patrol, cadets attend a seven-month academy where they are tested extensively not only in a classroom setting, but also put through a series of scenario-based tests using live actors, according to Omar Watson, assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol’s personnel and training division in Sacramento.
Watson has worked as a field officer, sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He worked as an instructor at the academy in Sacramento and later went on to act as tactical training program manger. He also worked as captain of the special services and investigative division, and now, at his current position, is responsible for all academy training as well as statewide mandated training for officers already in the field.
“They get tested on shooting policy, they get tested on enforcement tactics, they get tested on scenarios,” Watson said. “Then when they graduate and go to the field, we get continual training on our shooting policy and they get trained in various scenarios. We have different simulators that they can utilize to deal with shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, or just scenarios in general on how they are going to deal with a particular subject.”
With more than 30 years of experience between them, neither Ralph Brown or Watson have ever had to fire their service weapon in the line of duty.
“I’ve never been involved in a shooting,” Brown said. “I was almost involved in a shooting, but the subject backed away and the threat was reduced and there was no need for a shooting. As an internal affairs sergeant I’ve investigated several shootings, and so I understand that part of the process.”
Watson, a 22-year veteran of the CHP, also said that though he’s had to draw his weapon numerous times in scenarios where he was defending himself or coming to the defense of someone else, he’s never actually had to fire at anyone.
Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing states that “the need for expanded and more effective training has become critical.” Part of this expansion deals with the issue of mental illness. According to Fatal Force database, 25 percent of fatal shootings in 2015 involved someone showing signs of mental illness.
“I have to say that when we started to see the mental illness trend, the one in four people being mentally ill, that was surprising at the outset,” Tate said. “I think I didn’t really know that much about shootings in general.”
Part of the plan to combat this issue will start with training requirements that come directly from POST. This would “include mandatory Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which equips officers to deal with individuals in crisis or living with mental disabilities, as part of both basic recruit and in-service officer training,” according to the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
A 2015 report published by Amnesty International pointed out that laws governing the use of lethal force in the United States do not align with most other countries.
“Our research found that not one of the 50 states has laws that align with international standards for the use of deadly force, which is that it should be used only as a last resort in the face of imminent death or injury,” Robyn Shepard, the deputy press secretary for Amnesty International, wrote in an email.
Brown said to examine police shootings effectively, training needs to be looked at as well, and the Fatal Force database doesn’t include statistics on that.
“I am a retired sheriff’s lieutenant, and I’ve worked internal affairs, and I’ve worked patrol,” Brown said. And his opinion, lot of important factors are missing from the Washington Post’s research, including: levels of supervision, experience and training of the officer.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER AN OFFICER IS INVOLVED IN A SHOOTING?
After an officer is involved in a shooting, there is generally a standard series of events that follow, across all departments, Brown said. The specifics differ from department to department but will usually always include: emergency medical services for anyone injured, an immediate and lengthy investigation that involves the officer being placed on leave and oftentimes the inclusion of outside agencies, and also a psychological evaluation of the officer or officers involved.
Every division of the CHP has an investigative shooting team that is dispatched out to the scene after an officer involved shooting takes place, Watson said. These often include allied agencies, such as the LA County Sheriff’s Department or another local agency. During his time as captain of the Investigative Services division, Watson would personally visit the scene and act as the incident commander for every officer-involved shooting in his division.
“We look at the totality of the circumstances, as far as what the crime was, what the officer’s mindset was — everything that would cause an officer to fire a round is taken into consideration,” Watson said. “We look at our policies, we look at the law, and they come to a determination as to the validity of that shooting, whether it was a justified shoot[ing] or not.”
After investigative services or internal affairs is activated, the officer is usually referred to a counselor or psychologist for assessment.
“We’re not trained, nor is it our job, to determine whether or not the shooting incident itself is within policy or not, or varied from training or not,” Kevin Jablonski, chief psychologist, commanding officer of Behavioral Science Services and a 21-year veteran of the LAPD, said. “It is to talk to them about their experience both during and afterward, and — with our history and expertise — to see if their coping is within normal limits.”
CHP hires a “non-uniformed” resource to come in after a shooting has taken place to evaluate the officer and determine if he or she is fit to return to duty, Watson said.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of how extensive the investigations are and then the aftermath of an investigation,” he said. “A lot of officers throughout the nation that are involved in a combat shooting on duty never return to service. It’s not something that an officer wants to be involved in, and it can affect every single officer differently.”
MOVING FORWARD WITH UNDERSTANDING
“We know that the majority of police shootings happen within smaller departments,” Lowery said. “It’s not these huge professionalized departments. It’s not New York and Chicago killing the most people, right, it’s — insert random sheriff deputy in random place.”
The 2016 count is still on the rise, passing 736 as of Oct. 6. The Washington Post is trying to add information on all the officers involved in a fatal shooting. They are still waiting for the results of nearly 400 open-records requests from police departments across the country. One thing is for sure, Jablonski said: Public attention is at an all-time high.
“I believe that there’s an increase in shootings, but there’s also greater attention, bringing them to light, and those two factors together make them more present in the mind of the public,” he said.
The overwhelming focus is on whether these shootings are justified or not, Brown said, and “in the United States, as well in California, Graham v. Conner is the benchmark U.S. Supreme Court standard for use of force.”
According to Graham v. Conner, “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”
“These events cannot be solely judged with 20/20 hindsight,” Brown said. “Use of force incidents are very fluid; they’re ever-changing and lots of times they will require a split-second judgment.”
The decisions made by police officers on whether to kill another human being have never been under a brighter spotlight than they are now, Lowery said.
“You have this combination of social media and video that have come together in this way that is deeply deeply powerful,” he said, “and I think that that has forced a conversation that many people were not ready for or were not comfortable with, but that is an important conversation for us to be having.”
Follow Alec McPike on Twitter: @alecmcpike