Police have shot and killed at least 385 people nationwide during the first five months of 2015, or more than two people per day, according to an extensive analysis by the Washington Post published on Saturday.
The Post found that African Americans are killed at disproportionate rates, with black people killed at three times the rate of their white counterparts and other minorities when adjusting for overall population. And the vast majority of all victims — 365 out of 385 — were men.
In most of the shootings, the victim was typically armed with a deadly weapon, such as a gun or knife. Nearly 13 percent of shooting victims were unarmed, while more than 3 percent had a toy gun at the time of the shooting.
A separate count released on Monday by the Guardian — which, unlike the Post, looked at all killings, not just shootings — found 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 and less than 38 percent of the general population.
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 and had a history with law enforcement over small-time crimes. Many were mentally ill or emotionally troubled. 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 critics and reformers, the question isn't necessarily what's legal or justifiable — but what's preventable.
"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."
Federal data on police shootings is incomplete
The Washington Post and the Guardian's daily tallies are more than twice the average count reported to federal databases by police departments around the country, confirming warnings from public officials that the federal data is incomplete. A previous study by RTI International for the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) concluded that the two prevailing federal databases each capture less than half of all killings by police.
Currently, the federal government gathers police shooting data through the BJS's Arrest-Related Deaths (ARD) and the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), but both databases have problems. ARD collects data on police-caused homicides through state reporting coordinators, but the methods of collecting data can greatly vary from state to state, often depend on differing access to technology, and sometimes don't directly involve police departments or coroner's offices. SHR relies on reports submitted by police agencies, but these reports are voluntary — and some states, like Florida, don't participate.
The Post and the Guardian's counts falls roughly in line with counts conducted by others. KilledByPolice.net, for example, has tracked 474 police killings since the beginning of the year — but the group's count, like the Guardian's, includes all deaths caused by police, while the Post's only includes shootings.
Several police killings in the past year have led to nationwide protests over racial disparities in police killings. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for 28 criminal charges for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
For critics of law enforcement, the incomplete data is just another way it's difficult to hold police accountable. Without complete and accurate statistics, it's impossible to evaluate the extent of racial disparities in police killings, and how the US truly compares to other countries in deaths to law enforcement.
The Obama administration has acknowledged the problem, pushing to collect better data from police departments around the country. The FBI plans to try to collect better data on crimes and homicides, which could include police killings, according to USA Today's Kevin Johnson.
"The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police," former US Attorney General Eric Holder said in January. "This strikes many — including me — as unacceptable."