Despite ongoing national scrutiny of police tactics, the number of fatal shootings by officers in 2016 remained virtually unchanged from last year when nearly 1,000 people were killed by police.
Through Thursday, law enforcement officers fatally shot 957 people in 2016 — close to three each day — down slightly from 2015 when 991 people were shot to death by officers, according to an ongoing project by The Washington Post to track the number of fatal shootings by police.
The Post, for two years in a row, has documented more than twice the number of fatal shootings recorded by the FBI annually on average.
As was the case in 2015, a disproportionate number of those killed this year were black, and about a quarter involved someone who had a mental illness. In a notable shift from 2015, more of the fatal shootings this year were captured on video.
Dozens of departments have vowed reforms since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 launched a national debate over police use of force. Many agencies have equipped officers with body-worn cameras, with prominent police chiefs vowing to further curb fatal encounters. But experts say an impact on fatal shootings may take years.
“Making these kinds of changes is very difficult on such a widespread scale,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank pushing for national police reform. “But quite frankly, we’re still on the front-end of the training that we’re pushing out. It may be at least six months to a year until we start to really see those numbers come down.”
The Post began tracking fatal shootings by officers after the deaths of Brown and others during police encounters. The federal government does not comprehensively record how many people are killed by police annually and depends on voluntary reporting from police departments. The Post’s database — which will continue in 2017 — largely relies on local news coverage, public records and social-media reports.
In the second year of tracking, The Post found:
●White males continued to be those most often killed, accounting for 46 percent of this year’s deaths — about the same as in 2015. But when adjusted by population, black males were three times as likely to die as their white counterparts.
●The percentage of fatal shootings of unarmed people declined in 2016, from 9 percent in 2015 to 5 percent. Black males, however, continued to represent a disproportionate share of those: 34 percent of the unarmed people killed this year were black males, although they are 6 percent of the population.
●Of all those who were shot and killed, 84 percent were armed, most with a gun or knife. Four percent wielded imitation firearms. In 7 percent of the fatalities, it was unclear whether the person was armed.
●Mental illness remained a factor in many of the fatal shootings. As was the case last year, about 1 in 4 people fatally shot by police in 2016 were grappling with a mental health issue, according to The Post’s analysis.
The consistency from 2015 to 2016 is telling, experts said.
“It shows that one year wasn’t an anomaly,” said Geoff Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. “It’s a very robust number that is something we can trust in the future and a good measure to see when things do change.”
This year, The Post gathered additional information about officers involved in fatal shootings from media reports or news releases and filed more than 1,000 public-records requests from each police department involved in a fatal shooting. One-fourth of the departments queried by The Post have not responded to the requests.
Many gave only partial information. Of those who responded, only a third of the departments provided the race of the officers involved in fatal shootings. The racial breakdown roughly matched the composition of local and state police departments nationwide, according to federal data.
For the 811 officers about whom work information was disclosed or gathered, their average time on the job was nine years, and three-quarters of them were assigned to patrol. At least 60 officers who fatally shot someone this year had done so previously.
In 2016, deadly shootings by police erupted out of a broad range of circumstances. In a suspected terrorist attack, 18-year-old college student Abdul Razak Ali Artan, believed to have been radicalized online and inspired by the Islamic State, drove a car into a crowd of teachers and students at Ohio State University in November and then wounded several people with a knife. A campus police officer was on the scene within minutes and fatally shot Artan.
In January, an eviction in Penn Township, Pa., led to the death of 12-year-old Ciara Meyer, the youngest person killed by police gunfire this year. Police said her father, Donald Meyer, pointed a rifle at a constable who was serving him an eviction notice. When the officer fired at the father, the bullet passed through his arm and struck his daughter, according to a police affidavit.
“Meyer’s reckless conduct, knowing his daughter was standing behind him, triggered a chain of events that tragically led to the death of Ciara Meyer,” Perry County District Attorney Andrew Bender said in announcing criminal homicide and other charges against Meyer in his daughter’s death. Jerry Philpott, an attorney for Meyer, said his client has entered a not guilty plea. He declined further comment.
While there was national controversy in 2015 over killings of unarmed individuals by police, fatal shootings of several armed individuals this year led to similar outrage.
The cases included the shootings in the summer of three black men who each were in possession of a gun: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. At least a portion of each of those fatal encounters was captured on video.
In the shootings of Sterling and Scott, the videos raised questions about whether either man was raising or pointing his gun at officers. Federal investigators continue to probe the Sterling shooting, while local prosecutors have declined to charge Officer Brentley Vinson, who is black, in Scott’s death. “He acted lawfully. I am fully satisfied and entirely convinced that Mr. Vinson’s use of deadly force was lawful,” Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said in announcing his decision.
The Castile case drew notoriety after his girlfriend live-streamed the fatal shooting’s aftermath on Facebook. Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria employee, was legally carrying a gun when police approached him in a traffic stop, and he informed the officer of that during an exchange recorded by the patrol car’s dashboard camera. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, said he opened fire because he believed that Castile was reaching for the gun. But prosecutors have said the shooting was not justified and charged Yanez with manslaughter.
Thomas Kelly, an attorney for Yanez, said that his client has not yet entered a plea and is awaiting trial. He declined further comment.
That case is part of an overall increase in prosecutions of officers in fatal shootings in the two years since Ferguson. A review by The Post and Bowling Green State University professor Phil Stinson of officer prosecutions from 2005 to 2014 found that about five officers were charged annually in fatal shootings. There were 18 in 2015 and 13 this year, Stinson said.
Experts attribute the increase to greater availability of video evidence and political pressure. Still, the prosecution of officers for the use of deadly force remains rare — charges are filed in about 1 percent of all fatal police-involved shootings.
Stinson noted that almost 60 percent of the shootings for which officers have been charged in the past two years have included video evidence vital to the prosecution.
“In the past, the police have always owned the narrative in police shooting cases because a dead man can’t talk,” Stinson said. “Now, the videos are providing an alternative narrative to the police version of events.”
The year was also a particularly deadly one for police: 62 officers were fatally shot by civilians, up from 39 in 2015, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. In 2014, 48 officers were shot and killed; in 2013, the toll was 31.
In July, five officers were fatally shot in Dallas by a sniper angered over recent police-involved shootings.
“There seems to be a growing number of people in the United States who are willing to take aggressive action against police officers,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police. “If you couple that with the number of guns in criminal hands, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”
One of the biggest shifts from 2015 to 2016 was the number of deadly police encounters recorded on video.
In 2015, 142 of the fatal shootings were recorded — by cellphone cameras, police dash cams, cameras worn by officers or other devices. That number rose this year to 231.
Nationwide, police departments began equipping their officers with body-worn cameras in 2009, but their use escalated after the Ferguson protests of 2014.
“The body-camera train was starting to move but then just absolutely took off after the summer of 2014,” said Michael D. White, an Arizona State University professor who has researched the police implementation of body cameras.
Up to half of the nation’s 18,000 police departments have officers who wear cameras, he said. While an increasing number of fatal shootings have been recorded, in some cases the cameras capture nothing.
In at least a dozen fatal shootings this year, cameras worn by the officers failed to record the fatal encounter, according to The Post’s survey of police departments.
In Baton Rouge, police said body cameras “fell off” the officers involved in the death of Alton Sterling as they responded to a call about a man with a gun outside of a convenience store. Bystander video captured the July 5 shooting, but police officials have said the body-cam video, which continued to record after the camera dismounted, did not capture images of the shooting.
“If these incidents are not properly recorded, they are gone forever, and then there will forever be questions that cannot be answered that could have been,” said Justin Bamberg, an attorney who is on the legal team that represents the families of Sterling and Keith Lamont Scott, who was fatally shot Sept. 20 by Charlotte police.
Chicago police released body-camera videos from the July 28 shooting of Paul O’Neal, an 18-year-old black man who allegedly fled police in a stolen Jaguar. The moment of the shooting was not captured by the body camera of the officer who fired the fatal shot because it was not activated, police said. The department is investigating the shooting.
Michael Oppenheimer, a Chicago attorney who is representing O’Neal’s family, questioned why the shooting wasn’t recorded. “And, what is the good of having a body camera if they’re not going to be turned on to capture what they’re supposed to capture?” he said.
Policing experts said that in the rush to equip officers with cameras, departments have failed to implement the proper training, and best practices and policies to ensure that the cameras work as intended.
In many cases, officers have little experience with body-worn cameras and forget to activate them, and departments lack clear policies about when they should be activated, said Kevin Angell, a former Florida police officer who consults police departments on developing body-camera polices.
In the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Dalvin Hollins in Tempe, Ariz., police said that the body camera being worn by one officer was not activated until several minutes after the shooting.
Police responded to a call about 9 a.m. July 27 that a young black man wearing sweatpants and carrying a book bag had robbed a Walgreens pharmacy. Security footage later released by police showed Hollins jumping the counter and demanding liquid narcotics while keeping one hand inside the bag. Police have said Hollins told the pharmacy workers that he had a gun.
Hollins ran after being confronted by a Tempe police officer. A second officer joined the pursuit, first in his vehicle and then on foot, according to police.
Police said the second officer fired when he saw Hollins reach for his waistband. A gun was not recovered from the scene, police said.
Hollins’s family disputed police accounts of what happened. “This officer ran up on my scared son, who is running for his life and scared to death,” Frederick Franklin, Hollins’s stepfather, told The Post in an interview. “He committed a crime, but he hadn’t done anything that he should have died for.”
Franklin said Hollins had been struggling with mental illness, which the family believed to be bipolar disorder.
“In every jurisdiction, their body-camera policies are so different,” said the Rev. Jarrett Maupin, an Arizona activist who organized protests after Hollins’s death. “And there are no real consequences I’ve yet to see for when these cameras aren’t turned on or when they are arbitrarily turned off.”
Over the two years analyzed by The Post, one of the occurrences that most frequently led to a fatal shooting by police was a domestic disturbance call.
Since January 2015, about 1 in 6 people were killed in cases that began like that.
Police say that investigating a domestic disturbance is one of the most dangerous calls an officer can respond to.
“It’s one of the most volatile situations because it’s emotional and can lead to injury and shootings,” said Alpert, the South Carolina professor. “Sometimes you have no choice — you’re taking a life to save a life.”
In Valdosta, Ga., 28-year-old Johnathan Lozano-Murillo was killed Sept. 28 after police were called to his home over a child custody dispute. When an officer arrived, Lozano-Murillo allegedly attacked his daughter’s mother and then brandished a knife at the officer, who used a Taser on him and then fatally shot him, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“One police officer killed my son without any opportunity to try and listen to him,” Servando Lozano said.
In Lake Havasu City, Ariz., police were called in June by the father of Devin Christopher Scott after the 20-year-old broke into his father’s home and retreated to a bedroom. Four officers responded. When police entered the room, Scott allegedly approached them with a knife before he was Tasered and then shot twice by an officer, according to news reports.
“They were supposed to come and help me, not kill my son,” said Gary Christian, Scott’s father.
A similar scene unfolded in Harrisburg, Pa., in August when officers were called to a residence where Earl Pinckney was arguing with his mother about diapers for his newborn daughter, according to police and the local prosecutor’s office.
Three hours before the call, Pinckney, 20, had posted a picture of himself and the 2-week-old on Facebook: “Being a dad is the only thing that makes me happy,” he wrote.
The call to police about Pinckney was not the family’s first. In 2008, when Pinckney was 11, police were called by his mother, Kim Thomas, after he allegedly threatened to stab his siblings, according to the Dauphin County prosecutor’s office. Since then, police had been contacted about Pinckney’s behavior at least 12 times by his family, prosecutors said.
Many times, Pinckney, who struggled with bipolar disorder and was on antidepressants, could be calmed down without incident, his mother said.
But on Aug. 7, Pinckney’s 9-year-old niece called 911: “My uncle is trying to hurt my grandma. Can you please come quick,” according to the recording, released by the prosecutor’s office. When a dispatcher called back, Pinckney’s sister said he had a knife.
By the time police arrived, things had calmed down, Thomas said, and the pair were standing in Pinckney’s bedroom talking. That’s when she said she saw a red beam from what appeared to be an officer’s gun pointed at her son’s chest. “I said, ‘Please, don’t shoot my son!’ ” Thomas said. One officer fired once. Pinckney fell to the ground, killed by a bullet through his heart, according to the autopsy.
Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said the four responding officers reported that Pinckney had a knife or was holding his mother at knifepoint. Marsico declined to press charges.
The officer’s actions were “reasonable” and “necessary,” Harrisburg Police Chief Thomas C. Carter said in an interview with The Post.
Thomas disputes the officers’ accounts. “He never had no knife up to me,” she said.
In 2016, advocates for police reform continued efforts to push for the nation’s police departments to adopt practices to curb the number of fatal shootings by police.
Earlier this month, 425 officers from 160 police agencies convened in New Orleans for the debut of training developed by the Police Executive Research Forum. The training is aimed at reducing the number of fatal shootings of people not armed with a gun — about 40 percent of this year’s fatal police-involved shootings, according to The Post’s analysis.
“Those are situations that we think that we can impact,” said Wexler, the group’s executive director, who believes that with changes in training, police can reduce the shootings of unarmed people as well as those armed with knives or blunt objects. That could potentially save 300 to 400 lives a year, Wexler said. “It’s difficult to expect a different outcome when an officer is faced with a firearm,” he said.
The training, which promotes de-escalation and encourages police to slow down encounters, has been tested in Baltimore, Houston and Prince William County, Va., Wexler said.
Meanwhile, the FBI said it is moving forward with plans to better track fatal force after mounting public pressure prompted the bureau last year to announce that it would launch a database in 2017.