Rise in fatal shootings by US police

Police tape set up at the Dallas police shooting crime scene.
Police tape set up at the Dallas police shooting crime scene. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON • As the use of deadly force by police once again roils the nation, the number of fatal shootings by officers has increased from 465 in the first six months of last year to 491 for the same period this year, according to an ongoing two-year study by The Washington Post.

This year has also seen more officers shot and killed in the course of duty and more prosecuted for questionable shootings.

While the pace of fatal shootings has risen slightly two years after a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the grim encounters are also increasingly being captured on video and stoking outrage.

Details of the fatal encounters so far this year remain strikingly similar to shootings in all of 2015: Blacks continued to be shot at 2.5 times the rate of whites.

About half of those killed were white and about half were minorities. Fewer than 10 per cent of all those killed were unarmed. One quarter were mentally ill.

But there are notable differences: More of the shootings were captured on video, from 76 in the first half of last year to 105 in the same period this year. The videos were recorded by police-worn body cameras, surveillance cameras, those mounted on patrol cars or bystanders' smartphone cameras.

The number of fatal shootings of black women has also risen. Nearly the same number of black women have been killed so far this year as in all of 2015 - eight compared with 10.

Last year, the Post began to log every fatal police shooting in the nation and then analysed more than a dozen details about each event.

The project revealed that in 2015, nearly 1,000 people were fatally shot by police, more than twice the average annual number reported by the FBI in previous years.

The Post has expanded the effort this year, culling media reports and filing hundreds of public-records requests to obtain the names and work histories of officers involved in fatal shootings - information that is not tracked by any federal agency.

As was the case in 2015, in most fatal shootings this year, officers were confronted by subjects armed with guns.

In the first six months of this year, 20 officers were fatally shot in the line of duty, compared with 16 in the first six months of 2015, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Officials representing rank-and- file officers say it is criminals who make it hard to reduce the number of fatal shootings by police.

"Police are dealing with a lot of violent individuals," said Mr Jim Pasco, executive director of the Nashville-based national Fraternal Order of Police. "And the criteria for using deadly force hasn't changed essentially, so why would the numbers change?"

After Ferguson, a White House task force called for teaching officers new skills to de-escalate volatile encounters.

Hundreds of police chiefs also pushed new policies for dealing with the mentally ill.

And thousands of departments began outfitting officers with the body-worn cameras, hoping this would curb the use of excessive force.

But criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston said there will be a "lag time" before there is a measurable drop in deaths, even among the departments that are earnestly embracing training reforms.

"It takes time to get everyone through training... It takes time to change a culture," he said.

Meanwhile, the Post analysis showed that in the past 18 months, murder and manslaughter charges brought against officers in fatal shootings have tripled, while the presence of video evidence in these cases has doubled.

But it suggests that the ubiquitous nature of video has not yet had the deterrent effect that police and civil rights groups had hoped for, at least as it applies to fatal force.

Mr Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he thinks video will never alter rates of fatal shootings.

"There's a lot of hoopla surrounding the idea that body-worn cameras and the ubiquitous nature of social media would dramatically change the number of instances of deadly force. Unfortunately, this is not driven so much by police but by the aggressive criminal behaviour of suspects."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Rise in fatal shootings by US police'. Print Edition | Subscribe