The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fatal police shootings in 2021 set record since The Post began tracking, despite public outcry

Officers investigate the scene of a police shooting on Dec. 29 in Silver Spring, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Police shot and killed at least 1,055 people nationwide last year, the highest total since The Washington Post began tracking fatal shootings by officers in 2015 — underscoring the difficulty of reducing such incidents despite sustained public attention to the issue.

The new count is up from 1,021 shootings the previous year and 999 in 2019. The total comes amid a nationwide spike in violent crime — although nowhere near historic highs — and as people increasingly are venturing into public spaces now that coronavirus vaccines are widely available.

Despite setting a record, experts said the 2021 total was within expected bounds. Police have fatally shot roughly 1,000 people in each of the past seven years, ranging from 958 in 2016 to last year’s high. Mathematicians say this stability may be explained by Poisson’s random variable, a principle of probability theory that holds that the number of independent, uncommon events in a large population will remain fairly stagnant absent major societal changes.

That the number of fatal police shootings last year is within 60 of the average suggests officers’ behavior has not shifted significantly since The Post began collecting data, said Andrew Wheeler, a private-sector criminologist and data scientist.

“I think the data is pretty consistent that there’ve been no major changes in policing, at least in terms of these officer-involved shooting deaths,” he said.

Explore the data: Police shootings database 2015-2022

Advocacy for policing overhauls has intensified since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. More than 400 bills were introduced in state legislatures last year to address officers’ use of force. Police departments increasingly partnered with mental health experts to respond to people in crisis. Cities established civilian review boards for use-of-force incidents.

None of it decreased the number of people shot and killed by officers last year. The total has increased slightly most years since 2015 — a pattern that Wheeler said may or may not signal that fatal shootings truly are trending higher.

Franklin Zimring, a law professor and criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said he agreed that the rise in fatal shootings from 2020 to 2021 was relatively insignificant. He noted that the percentage change from one year to the next — 3 percent — was small.

While last year’s policing overhauls did not decrease fatal shootings, Zimring said the stagnancy was unsurprising. A policy enacted now, he said, may take years to make a statistically significant difference.

“The good news is, things aren’t getting an awful lot worse,” Zimring said of the 2021 total. “And the very bad news is that they’re not getting better, either.”'

The demographics of the people fatally shot have remained largely constant since The Post started tracking after a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., killed Michael Brown in 2014, gathering information from news coverage, social media posts and police records. Although the FBI launched its own data collection program to track police use of force in 2019, a lack of participation by departments has put that program’s existence at risk.

Last year, all but 15 percent of people shot and killed by officers were armed, according to The Post’s data. Ninety-four percent were men. Roughly 14 percent had known mental health struggles, down from about one-fifth in the two previous years and about one-fourth in 2016 and 2015.

Sixteen percent of people fatally shot last year were killed after police responded to a domestic-disturbance call. Eleven percent were fatally shot after someone called 911. (Data on racial demographics was too incomplete to provide meaningful analysis. Such data can require additional months of research to finalize.)

Among the highest-profile of the killings after a 911 call was that of Ma’Khia Bryant, a teenager in Ohio’s foster system. After two people called police to ask for help, body-camera footage shows, a Columbus police officer arrived and saw Bryant swing at another person’s head with what appeared to be a knife. The officer yelled, “Get down!” several times and then fired four shots at Bryant.

The publicly released video prompted local and national outcry, driving hundreds into the streets to protest another deadly interaction between law enforcement and a Black American.

About 20 percent of last year’s fatal police shootings were captured on body cameras — the highest portion since The Post began tracking. In 2015, the first year data was collected, body-camera video existed for roughly 8 percent of shootings.

The increase, however, does not seem to have affected the number of fatal encounters. That lack of change may be because officers get used to wearing the cameras and do not act differently because of them, said Nusret Sahin, a criminal justice professor at Stockton University with an expertise in body cameras.

Body-camera video of a fatal shooting also may not be widely viewed. Some states and police departments make the footage public, while others do not, Sahin said. He said it is also unclear how many police supervisors watch the videos and impart discipline for policy violations.

“If you know that this will just be inside your service and will not be released unless there’s a high-profile incident or a use-of-force complaint, you wouldn’t change your behavior,” Sahin said.

Last year also stands out because one of those shot and killed by police was a young child — 8-year-old Fanta Bility. Bility was shot by Sharon Hill, Pa., police officers who fired at a car outside a high school football game in August. The officers mistakenly thought someone in the vehicle was firing at them, a grand jury said. Four people were hit by the gunfire, and Bility died of her injuries.

The three officers involved were criminally charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment in January. They were later fired from the police force. The shooting marked the third time in the last seven years that police fatally shot a child under age 10. The other children, both 6, were killed in 2015 and 2017.

Of the 1,055 people fatally shot last year, about 1 percent were juveniles — consistent with other years that The Post has tracked.

The killing of Adam Toledo, 13, roiled Chicago last spring after a city police officer chased Toledo through an alley on March 29 and ordered him to stop and show his hands. Video appears to show Toledo stopping at the opening in a fence, turning and raising his hands as an officer shoots once and strikes him in the chest.

Toledo appears to have been holding something in his hand when he stopped running. Police have said it was a gun that they later recovered. An attorney for Toledo’s family said he had dropped the gun and put up his hands before the officer fired.

The relative stability of the annual number of fatal shootings does not mean the total is unchangeable. Wheeler said societal interventions, such as new policies around use of force, could shift the total from its expected range.

“The data’s consistent with that [range] now,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do stuff to reduce those incidents over time.”

Hannah Thacker contributed to this report.

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