The unseen toll of nonfatal police shootings

Untallied nationally, the shootings leave those who survive with injuries, emotional trauma and legal fallout.

The way Kenneth Gilbert Jr. and his father tell the story, it had been a busy morning running errands in east Atlanta when their pickup was suddenly cut off by a dark truck and forced onto the curb.

Once Gilbert Sr. got back on the road, he said, the truck swerved back into their lane. Gilbert Sr. said he hit the gas and sped around it, making a sweeping motion with his hand as he shouted at the driver to “move over.”

Gilbert Sr. said that as he slowed for the next stoplight, he saw the truck catching up — and a gun pointing at him from its passenger window. He yelled for his son to get down as a bullet shattered one of their rear windows and struck Gilbert Sr. in the head.

Gilbert Jr. then grabbed his gun, which he legally owned, from the floorboard of the pickup and returned fire. He, too, was shot in the head.

Both survived. And both insist they had no idea that the man shooting at them was an Atlanta police officer riding in an unmarked SWAT vehicle. The department would later say that Officer Scott Oliver, who was unharmed, opened fire only after seeing the younger Gilbert load and point a gun. The officer said he ordered Gilbert Jr. to drop it.

After an initial burst of media attention, the March 13, 2019, shootings quickly faded from the headlines.

Although The Washington Post has documented nearly 1,000 fatal police shootings nationwide every year, there is no comprehensive data on incidents in which officers shoot and wound someone.

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That has made it difficult not only to know how often this happens, but also to hold departments and officers accountable.

“That kind of information is necessary to develop strategies to reduce officer-involved shootings,” said Chuck Wexler, who runs the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, adding that nonfatal police shootings deserve just as much scrutiny as fatal ones. “What matters is it was a shooting, whether they died or not. The real question is, what can we learn from that?”

To help fill this gap, The Post and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program filed public records requests for information about nonfatal shootings from every department with five or more deadly police shootings from 2015 through 2020.

Analysis of data obtained from 156 departments found that in addition to the 2,137 people killed in fatal shootings, officers in those departments shot and wounded 1,609 more.

In other words, for every five people shot and killed by police in these departments, four others were shot and survived.

This is the unseen reality of police use of deadly force in the United States: a hidden population whose circumstances largely echo those in fatal shootings but who survive to grapple with a lifetime of debilitating wounds, emotional trauma and legal fallout.

Because The Post examined incidents only in the deadliest departments, the tally of those wounded by police is undoubtedly far higher.

In some cities, woundings heavily outnumbered fatal shootings. The New York Police Department had 87 nonfatal shootings compared with 43 fatal ones. In Chicago, police wounded 63 people and killed 38. The Atlanta Police Department, one of whose officers shot the Gilberts, had the largest disparity of any department examined, wounding three times as many people as it killed: 40 nonfatal police shootings since 2015, compared with 13 fatal shootings in that period.

America stands out in comparison with other nations for its prevalence of guns. Police are trained to anticipate that anyone they encounter may have a gun and pose a threat. Experts note that officers are trained to shoot when they perceive a serious, imminent threat to themselves or someone else — and to shoot at “center mass” until that threat subsides.

Police in New York and Atlanta declined to comment.

The Chicago Police Department said in a statement that it has updated its use-of-force policies in recent years to “prioritize the sanctity of human life” and that it regularly reviews officers’ use of force to recommend policy and training changes. “The Chicago Police Department is committed to treating all individuals fairly and respectfully.”

The Post data revealed that these incidents also can pose a threat to police: Officers were shot in about 7 percent of all fatal and nonfatal shootings examined.

The information that departments provided to The Post about their nonfatal shootings varied.

Some shared case notes, including demographic and narrative information, while others provided just a raw number of shootings — complicating efforts to conduct a thorough analysis.

In cases where detailed information was available, the circumstances in which people were wounded by police gunfire largely paralleled those in fatal shootings at the same departments: Nearly all of those shot and wounded were men, and many struggled with addiction, homelessness and poverty. At least 1 in 5 were experiencing mental health crises, and police said most were armed with guns when the shootings occurred.

The racial disparity in nonfatal shootings, however, was more pronounced than in fatal shootings across the departments studied: Black residents accounted for 16 percent of the combined population policed by these departments, but they represented 30 percent of those fatally shot by police and 41 percent of those shot and wounded. Officers in The Post’s sample shot nearly the exact number of Black people (1,109) as they did White people (1,111) — although these communities have nearly three times as many combined White residents as they do Black ones.

Jim Pasco, the longtime executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the largest union representing rank-and-file officers across the country, said that officers are not to blame for racial disparities in police use of force, although racial bias on the part of some individual officers may contribute to the overrepresentation of Black people who are shot and wounded by police in The Post’s data.

“Police officers are deployed where the crime is, and crime is usually a lot more likely to occur in poor communities, underserved communities, and underrepresented communities, and so that’s where they are, and those communities, sadly, tend to be people of color,” Pasco said.

“What we’ve got to talk about is why that neighborhood is the way it is, and why Black people are stuck there without economic opportunity, good education or anything else.”

Phillip Atiba Goff, who leads Yale University’s African American studies department and is one of the nation’s foremost policing-data experts, said the racial disparities documented by The Post across the 156 departments align with research conducted by his Center for Policing Equity.

Goff said that because police prioritize drug- and poverty-based crimes in communities of color, they are more likely to encounter and use force against Black people — no matter the suspected offense. “We’ve chosen a set of things to criminalize, we’ve chosen a group of people to have constant police interactions, and those folks are the same folks who have historically been our most vulnerable,” he said.

The Post’s analysis of shootings at the 156 departments also found that Black people shot by police more often survived (46 percent) than White people (34 percent). Policing experts said that whether someone survives a police shooting often depends on a combination of variables — how many bullets strike the person and where on the body, how quickly medical aid is rendered, and luck.

Controlling the narrative

In fatal shootings, the police account is the first and sometimes only record of what happened. When people survive, there’s an opportunity to hear another side of the story — one that sometimes contradicts the police account.

Consider the case of Shacory Daniels and Fredrick Harris Jr. in San Leandro, Calif. The men were shot by police in March 2018. Their story and the account offered by the police differ on a critical point: whether the men were armed.

By their own admission, Daniels and Harris had been breaking into cars. When officers caught up with them in a San Leandro mall parking lot, two unmarked police cars blocked in their car.

That’s when, police said, Daniels drove at them — prompting another officer to ram into Daniels with an unmarked police van. Amid the chaos, police say, an officer saw Harris reach toward the center console of the vehicle in which he was a passenger.

“I see him come up and I see a black object come up towards the passenger side window and basically thrust in my direction,” Fremont police officer Jamil Roberts, who was driving the police van, would later tell police investigators. “I thought I was gonna be shot and hurt seriously, killed.”

Roberts fired through his vehicle’s driver side window, striking Harris in the back, arm and face, and hitting Daniels in one calf. Harris was arrested at the scene. Daniels fled and hid in nearby bushes for several hours before police found him.

On the advice of his attorney, Harris declined to discuss details of the incident with The Post, although he did talk about his injuries and the aftermath of the case. In a videotaped interview between Harris and investigators obtained by The Post, he told detectives he put his hands up before Roberts shot him.

Gregory Fox, an attorney representing Roberts, said that one of the officers said he saw Daniels drop and then pick up and run away with a “metallic object.” No weapon was found in the car or at the scene. Both men insist they were unarmed.

In an interview with The Post, Daniels, 35, said an unmarked car rammed him and he tried to swerve away, not realizing it was the police. “Yes, we was doing something bad,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t [bad] enough for you to shoot us.”

The men were among 12 people shot by Fremont Police Department officers from 2015 to 2020. Four others survived, and six were killed. The department declined to comment on the shooting, as did the nearby San Leandro Police Department, whose officers investigated the shooting. Both departments found that Roberts had violated no administrative policies.

Harris was charged with second-degree burglary of a vehicle, a misdemeanor, and for violating his parole related to two prior burglary charges on his record. Daniels was charged with four counts of assault on a police officer, felony evading arrest and second-degree burglary.

Daniels’s attorney, Chike Odiwe, said that in this case and in many police shootings that he has handled, police and prosecutors sometimes file more serious charges to ensure that the person police shot agrees to a plea deal or settlement.

Defense attorneys say they often advise their clients to avoid the media, so as not to anger prosecutors.

It would be unethical for prosecutors to consider a police department’s civil liability when considering criminal charges, said Greg Totten, the chief executive of the California District Attorneys Association.

He said prosecutors may feel pressure to bring serious charges in cases in which police have shot and wounded someone.

But, he added: “No DA should be filing a charge that he or she does not think can be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It’s not at all uncommon for someone to be arrested and charged by police, and it’s presented to the DA, and the DA’s office decides to file something less serious.”

Ultimately, the Alameda County district attorney dropped all of the charges against Daniels except for evading arrest, for which he received probation. He also served 18 months in prison for violating his parole by being arrested.

Harris served four days in jail followed by three years of probation. Bullets remain lodged in his face and back, he said. He later sued the Fremont Police Department and reached a settlement in which he was paid $600,000, city records show. In exchange, Harris said, he agreed not to discuss the details of the case publicly.

The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.

Daniels also sued, and his lawsuit is pending. He repairs roads for CalTrans, the state agency that manages California’s highway system. He said that his leg aches when he works and that he can no longer play basketball with his 11-year-old son. But Daniels said he is glad finally to be telling his story.

“If you shot somebody and it was wrong, then that needs to be acknowledged and not just slipped up under the rug,” he said.

‘Either one of us could have died that night’

Such encounters endanger police as well. Out of the 3,746 fatal and nonfatal police shootings The Post examined, there were 246 shootings in which at least one officer was shot. In those shootings, 28 officers were killed and 279 wounded.

Officers Rashad Martin and Jason Scott of the Richmond police were among those who took fire. About 1:30 a.m. on June 2, 2020, the pair responded to a call reporting a man with a gun.

As they reached the South Side area in their cruiser, they saw three men walking on Semmes Avenue. The officers assumed the men would flee. “They’re about to run,” Scott declared to his partner as they exited their cruiser.

Cameras worn by the officers recorded what happened next.

All three men complied with the officers’ commands to stop walking and show their hands. Martin then asked one of the men, 19-year-old Waseem Hackett, to lift his shirt and show his waistband. Hackett instead asked if he was being detained.

Martin said he was: The city was under an 8 p.m. curfew because of the protests occurring after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis about a week earlier. At that point, Hackett lifted his shirt to reveal a handgun, and Martin quickly moved to handcuff him.

“Put your hands behind your back,” Martin ordered. He grabbed Hackett by one arm.

“What the hell?” Hackett responded, pulling away.

Hackett ran, drew his gun and began firing at the officers, both of whom returned fire. All three men — Hackett and the officers — were wounded. Hackett was shot once in the shoulder, while the officers faced more serious injuries: Scott was shot in the abdomen and chest, and Martin was shot in an arm and knee.

“Either one of us could have died that night,” Martin said in an interview with The Post. “We were just fortunate that we ended up making it home.”

Both officers required multiple surgeries, lengthy hospital stays and physical therapy. Martin is still awaiting an operation to repair his knee, and neither officer has fully healed from his wounds nor been able to return to full duty. They said in a joint interview that the hardest part has been the damage to their mental health. Both have attended therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and struggle to sleep.

“Even two years later,” Scott said, “as soon as my head hits the pillow, it’s like, ‘Well, I guess we’re gonna think about the shooting.’ ”

In October 2021, as part of a deal with prosecutors, Hackett pleaded no contest to two counts of aggravated malicious wounding and one count of possession of a firearm by a violent felon. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In a phone interview from Virginia’s Nottoway Correctional Center, Hackett said he regrets his actions that night.

Hackett said that at the time of the shooting, he was homeless and carrying a gun for protection. He said he and the other men had been drinking and using drugs that night. (The two other men told police, in interview recordings obtained by The Post, that they did not know Hackett before the shooting and did not see what happened once the gunfire started. Neither man could be located for comment.)

Hackett said he pulled away only after Martin grabbed him.

“In my mind, I’m like, ‘They’re trying to kill me.’ ” he said. “I’ve been seeing how the police has been killing unarmed Black people for years, so knowing that I have a gun on me, I’m thinking they’re going to kill me.”

Hackett said that he was interviewed by police that night at the hospital without a lawyer present and that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Facing charges that could have resulted in a prison term of more than 50 years, he made a deal with prosecutors.

“The situation never should have gone down that way,” Hackett said, adding that if he could change what happened, he “would never have brought a gun out with me that night.”

Officer Martin defended his actions. In the moment, he said, he assumed — ultimately correctly — that Hackett was carrying the gun illegally and that the young man would therefore be inclined to flee.

“I was as polite as possible, given the situation. … I could have said, ‘Hey, will you please lift your shirts up?’ It wouldn’t have mattered, because he didn’t want to go to jail,” Martin said. “So when I went to grab him and detain him, it became a reality for him that, ‘Hey, this is a situation where I might go to jail, and I just simply don’t want to do that. So what I’m gonna do is kill these cops and get away.’ And that’s exactly what he tried to do.”

‘Did you guys get the other people?’

In Atlanta, as Kenneth Gilbert Jr. was being loaded into the ambulance, he called his mother: He told her that he and his father had been shot by a “White dude” riding in what appeared to be some sort of “dogcatcher truck.”

“When I was in the ambulance, I asked them, ‘Did you guys get the other people? Did you guys find the other people? Did they get away?’ ” Gilbert Jr. said. “I didn’t know who these people were.”

Meanwhile, at the scene, a law enforcement official offered the police account to local media. “When they pulled up alongside the suspect vehicle, they looked and they saw the suspect loading a handgun,” Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Jeff Glazier said. “They certainly feared for their life,” he said.

At the hospital, both the father and son required blood transfusions. Gilbert Jr.’s scalp bore a jagged line of staples. Gilbert Sr. said the doctor who dislodged the bullet from his skull told him that had it struck a half-centimeter to one side it would have left him brain dead. “Thank God for a hard head,” Gilbert Sr. said.

Neither father nor son was interviewed by Atlanta police, they said. Angela Sendek, Gilbert Jr.’s mother, said the investigators from the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office who spoke with her at the hospital finally explained that the men had been shot by a police officer. They seemed focused on the officer’s conduct and gave no indication that either her son or ex-husband would be charged with a crime, she said.

After four days in the hospital, the men were sent home believing they would be vindicated. The officer had fired on them without provocation, they said, and never identified himself. “My car has tinted windows on it. How did you look into my car and see my son loading a handgun?” Gilbert Sr. said. “It never happened.”

But in the days that followed, the Gilberts’ version of what happened went unreported. Local media quoted police labeling Gilbert Sr. as a “convicted felon with a warrant out for his arrest” and questioning whether the Gilberts had been on their way to commit a crime at the time of the shooting. They also noted that Gilbert Jr. had been arrested in connection with a 2017 shooting.

The Gilberts were not quoted in any of the stories.

In an interview, Gilbert Sr. acknowledged felony convictions for shoplifting and possession of cocaine in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which he said stemmed from a time when he struggled with a drug addiction. He denied the police claim that there was a warrant out for his arrest the day of the shooting, and The Post was unable to find any record of one. At no point after the shooting was Gilbert Sr. taken into custody.

Records show that Gilbert Jr.’s 2017 case had been dismissed by a judge who concluded that Gilbert Jr. had fired in self-defense.

Gilbert Jr. said that six days after going home from the hospital, he was awakened in the middle of the night by pounding on his front door. He said an officer pulled him shirtless from bed and handcuffed him facedown in the grass in front of the home. He was booked into jail and charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony in connection with the shooting. His father was neither arrested nor charged.

Three years later, the case is unresolved.

Citing the still-pending charges against Gilbert Jr., the Atlanta Police Department and the union that represents its rank-and-file officers declined to comment or make Officer Oliver available for an interview.

Both Gilberts said they still suffer the effects of that day. A strange tingling shoots through Gilbert Sr.’s jaw whenever he chews, he said, and flashbacks jolt him awake at night.

Gilbert Jr. said his head throbs so much at night that he needs medication to sleep. He said he rarely leaves the house and has struggled to find work. “He doesn’t feel like a man,” his mother said through tears. “He can’t buy his daughter a pencil.”

That prosecutors still have not taken Gilbert Jr. to trial, said his lawyer Ash Joshi, is evidence that the facts support his client’s version of events. “If the government felt they had a strong case to bring, they likely would’ve brought it by now,” he said.

In August, prosecutors told The Post that their investigation continues. Days later, an investigator with the prosecutor’s civil rights unit contacted Joshi to request a new round of interviews with the Gilberts.

The Gilberts took that as a sign that perhaps the investigation is once again focused on Officer Oliver’s actions that day and said they plan to speak with investigators.

“I have a voice now,” Kenneth Gilbert Jr. told The Post. “I’m just glad to be here so I can tell my story.”

About this story

This article includes reporting by Bashirah Mack and Katie Licari-Kozak of Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program; Samantha Latson, a Washington Post Ida B. Wells fellow; Madeline Fuerstenberg, a Washington Post-Ann Devroy fellow; and Alexander Fernandez, Hayden Godfrey, Solène Guarinos, Audrey Morales, Lalini Pedris, Alexandra Rivera and Ron Simon III of the American University-Washington Post practicum program.

Editing by Sarah Childress and David Fallis. Data editing by Meghan Hoyer. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley. Design and development by Tara McCarty and Jake Crump. Design editing by Christian Font. Photo editing by Robert Miller. Video production by Joy Sharon Yi. Video editing by Jayne Orenstein. Project editing by Courtney Kan, Tara McCarty and Julie Vitkovskaya.

Methodology

To count nonfatal police shootings, The Washington Post used its Fatal Force database to identify every department that fatally shot five or more people from 2015 through the end of 2020. From those 230 departments, reporters requested records detailing all nonfatal shootings during the same period, ultimately obtaining data from 156 agencies ranging in size from major metropolitan to small rural departments. Many departments never responded to multiple requests for information.

The Post defined nonfatal police shootings as incidents in which a law enforcement officer shot a person who survived. Those include friendly fire or accidental shootings and off-duty incidents in which the shooters were acting in their capacity as officers. The Post did not include shootings in which officers fired at someone and missed, or incidents in which officers were not acting in any official capacity.

Reporters requested the date of each incident, the age and demographic information of people shot by police, as well as whether they were armed, were experiencing mental health crises, and whether the officers were disciplined as a result of their actions. Responses from departments varied significantly in detail and scope.

In some cases, departments provided only aggregate shooting counts for each year. Others gave The Post thousands of pages of detailed police reports. Reporters logged the information for each shooting in a database, supplementing entries with additional details from public databases, local news reports, district attorney rulings and police department news releases.

The Post gave every agency that provided nonfatal shooting records an opportunity to review its findings for that agency, and 152 confirmed the findings. The remaining four departments either declined to review The Post’s findings or did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

To understand how often police officers are shot in incidents where they shoot civilians, reporters reviewed news stories and news releases in all cases from the 156 departments in which a civilian may have been armed with a gun.