As the use of deadly force by police once again roils the nation, the number of fatal shootings by officers 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 line of duty and more officers prosecuted for questionable shootings.
Two years after a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., the pace of fatal shootings has risen slightly, while the grim encounters are increasingly being captured on video and stoking outrage.
On Tuesday, a black man in Baton Rouge was fatally shot when two white officers pinned him to the ground outside a convenience store. The event was captured in a video that went viral online, and within hours, the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation. On Wednesday, an officer in Falcon Heights, Minn., fatally shot a black man during a traffic stop. The aftermath of the shooting also was captured in a video that has received widespread attention.
“I feel change is not coming,” said Porsche McCullough, whose 29-year-old black female cousin was shot and killed by an Asian San Francisco police officer in May. “The community is tired. They are tired of seeing black people shot, poor people shot, people with substance-abuse problems shot.”
Since 2015, The Post has created a database cataloging every fatal shooting nationwide by a police officer in the line of duty.
A Post database that tracks fatal shootings by police shows a 6 percent increase in the number of such deaths during the first six months of 2016, compared with the same period last year. Fatal encounters are strikingly similar to last year's shootings: 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. Less than 10 percent of all those killed were unarmed. One-quarter were mentally ill.
But there are notable differences: More of the shootings were captured on video, 76 in the first half of 2015 and 105 in the first half of this year. And the number of fatal shootings of black women, such as that of Jessica Nelson-Williams in San Francisco in May, has risen. Nearly the same number of black women have been killed so far this year as in all of last year — eight this year, compared with 10 in all of 2015.
Last year, The Post began to log every fatal police shooting in the nation, analyzing 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 in 2016, 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. More than 360 officers’ names have been added to the database, and more names will be included as The Post obtains additional information.
As was the case in 2015, in most fatal shootings by police this year, officers were confronted by subjects armed with guns. In half of such cases, those persons fired at police, prompting officers to fire their own guns to defend themselves or to protect bystanders. 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 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, pleas for reforms focused on reducing certain types of shootings, such as those of individuals who are unarmed or experiencing mental-health crises as opposed to violent criminals who initiate shootouts with officers.
What followed was a White House task force that 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 body-worn cameras, hoping this would curb the use of excessive force.
The FBI also vowed to improve its collection of data on the fatal use of force by police. The agency said that in January 2017, it would start to compile a more accurate tally and would collect dozens of details about the incidents to analyze the events.
But widespread compliance with the FBI's initiative by police associations and departments isn't expected until 2019. The agency is seeking unanimous consent from numerous police groups regarding what data should be collected, a process that is still underway. And thousands of departments will need to equip themselves with the software to properly track and report the data. Even then, reporting will not be mandatory.
Training reforms, which the White House and police chiefs have embraced, also are rolling out in a slow, scattershot fashion. There are about 18,000 police departments in the nation, many with their own training academies and unions, making it impossible for them to move in lockstep.
There will be a “lag time” before there is a measurable drop in deaths, even among the departments that are earnestly embracing reforms, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
“It takes time to get everyone through training,” Fox said. “It takes time to change a culture.”
The nation’s focus in 2016 shifted away from fatal shootings by police and toward a historic and often bizarre presidential campaign — in which policing policy has received little widespread attention. Dozens of shootings, however, continued to generate outrage in local communities.
In San Francisco, Porsche McCullough’s cousin, Jessica Nelson-Williams, died on a foggy May morning as she tried to flee from San Francisco police down a dead-end street driving a stolen Honda Accord. Sgt. Justin Erb fired a single shot into the car, striking Williams, killing her.
It was the third fatal shooting by police over the past seven months in the city. All of the dead were homeless; all of them minorities. Within hours, a makeshift memorial sprouted on the spot where Nelson-Williams died — the familiar jumble of flowers and candles that has marked the scenes of police shootings in cities across the nation.
The local protests have rarely led to the nationwide demonstrations that turned past police shooting victims such as Brown, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., into household names.
“Are we becoming anesthetized to these violent events? Are they happening so often we no longer feel moved?” said Cedric Alexander, the police chief in DeKalb County, Ga., and a member of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
This week’s fatal shootings by police of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota have brought back the national outrage. How long it lasts remains to be seen.
More videos, more shootings
In 2016, fatal shootings by police are increasingly captured by cameras, a Post analysis shows. In the first six months, at least 105 shootings have been recorded in whole or in part by police-worn body cameras, surveillance cameras, cameras mounted on patrol cars or bystanders’ smartphone cameras.
At this point last year, that number was 76.
The biggest shift has been in the use of body-worn cameras: 63 of the shootings were recorded in this way through June, compared with 34 for the same period in 2015.
The videos have been a linchpin for prosecutors, activists and city mayors who want to hold police chiefs and officers accountable for questionable shootings.
Graphic video of fatal shootings has led to the firing of several police leaders, including Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in December. On May 19, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr stepped down at the urging of the city’s mayor, Ed Lee, hours after Nelson-Williams was killed in the city. Although Nelson-Williams’s killing was not captured on video, San Francisco police were recorded in the preceding months fatally shooting two homeless men.
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, a Post analysis shows.
From 2005 to 2014, 47 officers were criminally charged in fatal shootings, with 15 of those cases involving video evidence.
In 2015, 18 officers were criminally charged, with 10 of the cases involving video. And, so far this year, seven officers have been criminally charged, with five involving video evidence.
“With video, it no longer comes down to the word of police against people who are dead or against people who could be easily discredited,” said Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies arrests of police.
In Mesa, Ariz., prosecutors said they charged an officer after video contradicted his account of what led him to shoot and kill an unarmed man at a hotel.
On Jan. 18, Officer Philip Mitchell Brailsford of the Mesa police responded to a 911 call from a La Quinta Inn where guests spotted someone pointing a rifle out of a fifth-floor window. Police traced the incident to a room where 26-year-old Daniel Shaver was drinking rum shots with a woman. When officers arrived, they ordered the two of them into the hallway.
Brailsford later told investigators that Shaver became uncooperative, made a “furtive movement” toward the waistband of his shorts, and that he feared Shaver was attempting to retrieve a gun. Brailsford shot Shaver five times. Brailsford is white and so was Shaver.
But Shaver was unarmed when shot, and the woman told a story that was different from the officer’s. She said that seconds before being shot, Shaver was crawling toward officers, crying and saying, “Please don’t shoot me.”
Prosecutors said video from Shaver’s body camera supported the woman’s version of events. “Shaver was audibly sobbing as he crawled” toward officers, a police report said, adding that Shaver said, “No, please don’t shoot me.”
Brailsford was carrying an AR-15 rifle, with the phrase "You're F--ked" etched into the weapon. The police report also said the "shots were fired so rapidly that in watching the video at regular speed, one cannot count them."
The video also showed Shaver’s shorts were falling off as he crawled, and, according to the police report, he may have reached toward his waistband to pull them up. Brailsford shot just as Shaver’s empty hand moved back in front of him toward the floor, the report said.
Seven weeks later, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery filed a felony second-degree murder charge against Brailsford. During a private meeting with Shaver's widow, he said, "Your husband didn't do anything wrong. He didn't. He was trying to comply," according to an audio recording made by Shaver's widow and posted online.
Brailsford was fired by the department March 21. His case is expected to go to trial next year.
Brailsford’s attorney, Mike Piccarreta, told The Post he thinks the body camera footage will clear his client. “It demonstrates that the officer had to make a split-second decision when [Shaver] moved his hands toward the small of his back after being advised that if he did, he’d be shot.”
After her son's death in Ferguson on Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown's mother began pushing for all police departments to equip their officers with body cameras. She has said the cameras may provide answers to grieving families, such as hers, when there are conflicting eyewitness accounts. Civil rights groups and police associations that also support police use of the technology think the presence of video will change how officers respond and will drive down the number of police shootings.
FBI Director James B. Comey said as recently as May that he thinks a "viral video effect" has changed officers' behavior, making them wary of confronting suspected lawbreakers.
However, The Post's analysis suggests that the ubiquitous nature of video has not yet had the deterrent effect that police and civil rights groups have predicted — at least in relation to fatal force.
On March 13, in Lenoir City, Tenn., Officer Tyrel Lorenz activated a police camera on his chest as he responded to a call from a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant. It was just before 1 a.m., and three apparently intoxicated people had just driven away in a Dodge Dakota pickup truck.
Lorenz, 29, found the trio across the street at a Bimbo’s convenience store and began questioning the passengers, who had stepped out of the truck to pump gas. Joshua Grubb, 30, remained behind the steering wheel and, as Lorenz began to handcuff one of the passengers, Grubb started the engine and began to drive away.
Video from the body camera and from surveillance cameras at the convenience store shows that Lorenz abandoned the passenger he was handcuffing and jumped into the bed of the pickup truck. He screamed two warnings: “Stop the car! Stop the car!”
Then Lorenz fired nine bullets through the back window of the truck. One struck Grubb in the back of the head, killing him, causing the unmanned truck to drift into oncoming traffic and ultimately crash into a utility pole, according to video and a police report. Lorenz is white and so was Grubb.
Toxicology tests later showed that Grubb had both methamphetamine and twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system when he died.
The local prosecutor declined to charge Lorenz with a crime, saying that once the officer was in the bed of the truck, he had reasonable fear for his life and the lives of other motorists. But in a news conference announcing his decision, the prosecutor called the shooting tactically “problematic.” Lorenz, who had been a police officer for six years, resigned. His attorney had not responded to questions from The Post by the time of publication.
Police departments are increasingly banning officers from shooting into vehicles because bullets can ricochet off the metal and kill bystanders. Also, if a driver dies or becomes disabled, the multi-ton vehicle creates a traffic hazard, as was the case with Grubb’s drifting Dodge Dakota.
Fox, the criminologist from Northeastern University, said he is not surprised that the rise of video has so far had no impact on the number of fatal shootings. He thinks cameras may affect police behavior in "routine, calmer situations," such as during interactions with motorists who are complying with traffic stops, but not in more intense encounters.
“Once an officer feels they are in danger, or their emotions get elevated, then video is not paramount in their mind,” Fox said. “Then, they would tend to act more instinctively than deliberately.”
Pasco, the executive director of the national 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,” Pasco said. “Unfortunately, this is not driven so much by police but by the aggressive criminal behavior of suspects.”
Shooter often is experienced
In January, The Post began collecting additional details about officers who fired fatal shots, including the total years of service they had with their departments at the time of the shootings. So far, The Post has obtained that information in more than half of the shootings, or for 453 officers. Some shootings involve multiple officers.
Rookies were rarely the ones to pull the trigger in fatal shootings over the first six months of 2016. Only 19 percent of the officers who fired fatal shots had been with their departments for two years or less.
The largest group, 41 percent, had a decade or more on the force. The remaining officers fell between, with three to nine years' experience.
Police experts and criminologists said senior or veteran officers may be firing the fatal shots more often because of the types of job assignments they receive.
“Older officers may be assigned to gang units, or criminal investigation units, or they work traffic,” said Samuel Walker, a national expert on police training. “So their seniority sometimes puts them in some of the most dangerous assignments.”
Walker said senior officers also often ask for traffic assignments, a job that involves issuing tickets and citations, and provides lucrative overtime pay for court appearances. Traffic stops can often turn deadly: About 10 percent of fatal shootings by police over the past two years began as traffic-related interactions.
But assignments do not fully explain the pattern. Rookies also are often assigned to dangerous jobs in high-crime areas, responding to 911 emergencies, typically on the night shift.
Walker said one of the stark differences between today’s rookies and veteran officers is the type of training they have received. Most training academies now emphasize de-escalation tactics, encouraging officers to take cover, speak calmly to suspects and use less-than-lethal means to bring them into custody. Veterans may have gone through academies when training emphasized moving in quickly, barking orders and using force if suspects did not immediately comply.
“They may be stuck in the old ways,” Walker said.
In one Texas neighborhood, community leaders were surprised to learn that a senior officer with a decade of experience was the one who shot and killed a naked, unarmed teenager.
About 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 8, Officer Geoffrey Freeman of the Austin police responded to a 911 call about a teenager chasing someone through an apartment complex.
When Freeman arrived, he found 17-year-old David Joseph lying naked in the middle of a residential street. An autopsy would find that Joseph had marijuana and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, in his system.
“Stop right there,” Freeman can be heard saying calmly on a video captured by a camera mounted to his dashboard. Joseph looked up and began to run in the direction of the officer, who yelled: “Don’t move, stop, stop, stop!”
On the video, the naked teen runs up the street, past the view of the camera. Moments after he exits the frame the microphone captures the crackle of two shots from Freeman's gun. Joseph was shot in the chest and thigh and died at the scene. Freeman is black and so was Joseph.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo fired the officer — a rare punitive step for officers who kill in the line of duty — arguing that the shooting was avoidable and that approaching Joseph alone without backup was a violation of department policy.
“If there is no consequences, we’ll continue to have incidents where deadly force is used as a result of the abandonment of smart tactics, and cases where officers are injured or killed as a result of the abandonment of smart tactics,” Acevedo said in an interview with The Post.
At protests and rallies, local clergy and civil rights groups demanded Freeman’s firing and later his indictment. They argued that the teen was not a threat. Prosecutors declined to file charges.
“A 17-year-old boy, who was naked, was shot by a 10-year police veteran. That’s ridiculous,” said Fatima Mann, 29, a local activist with the Austin Justice Coalition, one of the protest groups. “An officer with that much experience should have known better.”
Freeman’s attorney did not respond to calls and emails from The Post.
Two of the three fatal shootings over the past seven months in San Francisco also involved senior officers.
Sgt. Erb, who shot Nelson-Williams in San Francisco in May, has worked for the department for 15 years.
And the April 7 shooting of Luis Gongora, 45, involved two senior officers, one with 17 years of experience and the other with 13 years. The Dec. 2, 2015, shooting of Mario Woods, 26, involved five officers who have between one and nine years of experience.
Edwin Lindo, who serves on the San Francisco Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Task Force and took part in a hunger strike to protest Gongora’s and Woods’s deaths, said older officers are not being properly retrained. Yet these senior officers are typically paired with rookies to provide them with on-the-job training, he said.
“The new recruits come out of the academy with new training. But the old guard tells them, ‘That’s nice what you’ve learned about de-escalating things, but you need to shoot before they shoot you,’ ” Lindo said. “The old guard corrupts the new rookies.”
Unrest in San Francisco
The police killing of Nelson-Williams followed months of turmoil in San Francisco over officers’ use of deadly force and the department’s relationship with minorities in the city.
In December, a bystander’s video recorded Woods, a homeless black man, moving slowly down the sidewalk with a knife at his side as five officers fired at least 20 bullets into him, several after he slumped to the ground. In January, Mayor Lee asked the Justice Department to conduct an independent review of the San Francisco Police Department, including its use of force. Lee also announced his own overhaul.
Ten weeks later, Gongora was shot. This time, surveillance video revealed that the homeless Hispanic man was killed after officers fired four beanbags and seven bullets at him within 30 seconds of stepping out of their patrol vehicles.
Then, in an April 29 news conference, Chief Suhr disclosed for a second time in a year that some of his officers had exchanged racist messages. The latest messages involved three officers who referred to Latinos as “beaners” and blacks as “niggas” and “wild animals.”
Lindo and four other activists, known as the "Frisco 5," began a hunger strike that lasted 17 days, demanding that Suhr be fired. But the mayor stood by Suhr — until Erb shot and killed Nelson-Williams.
Erb was assigned to auto-theft detail that day and “came across” Nelson-Williams, who was sitting in a parked white Honda Accord that had been reported stolen, according to a police report.
The pregnant mother of four tried to drive away, crashing the Honda into a parked utility truck. As she powered the car back and forth, trying to dislodge it from the truck, Erb fired into the car, records show. She was pronounced dead a short time later at a local hospital. Erb’s attorney declined to comment.
Seven hours after Nelson-Williams was shot, Suhr stepped down.
“She was unarmed. She was in a car. She was female and it appears she was stuck and going nowhere,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “Policymakers wanted to respond quickly. They wanted to make it look like change is happening.”
San Francisco Police Association President Martin Halloran described Suhr’s forced departure as a political move meant to “appease a knot of noisy troublemakers.” In a statement, he added that the three fatal police shootings “resulted from a failure to comply with lawful commands” and that officers “were simply doing their jobs the way they were taught.”
Still, the fatal shooting of Nelson-Williams has not sparked the fiery national demonstrations that followed other deadly police encounters in 2015.
The public response seems tepid, local officials said, even for San Francisco. Nelson-Williams died a mile from where police decades before fatally shot an unarmed black man, triggering five days of rioting. In 1966, Matthew "Peanut" Johnson, 17, was shot in the back by an officer after he fled police in a stolen car and then attempted to run away.
“More than 40 years have passed,” said John Burton, a lifelong resident of San Francisco, former congressman and current chairman of the California Democratic Party. “And it all sounds the same.”
Ted Mellnik, John Muyskens and John Sullivan contributed to this report. Students from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, Samantha Hogan, Andrew Kreighbaum, Ben St. Clair and Emma Kerr, also contributed.