The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police shootings of unarmed black people have not ended. But top-level political conversations about them have.

Body camera and helicopter footage provide more information about the night Sacramento police shot and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed father of two. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Police shootings of unarmed African Americans have not ended.

The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery wrote last week that as of March 15, police officers had fatally shot 212 people this year, according to The Post’s police shooting database. That's about the same pace of three fatal shootings per day that the newspaper has recorded since it began tracking police shootings in 2015.

But for the most part, there has been silence from the country's political leaders — especially involving the most recent incident.

Two Sacramento police officers were responding to a 911 call Sunday night reporting that a man was breaking vehicle windows when they encountered Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, The Post reported, based on video police released Wednesday.

Police say they saw an object in Clark’s hand before they fired 20 bullets that killed him in his back yard, a disturbing moment that was made public through body-camera footage released Wednesday night.

In the years following the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer, police violence became a regular part of the political conversation. President Barack Obama eventually organized a task force to respond to the issue, and as the number of deaths of black people at the hands of police rose, the issue entered the 2016 presidential campaign debate.

On the campaign trail, Republican nominee Donald Trump said he was “very troubled” by the police killing of a 40-year-old unarmed black man in Oklahoma in September 2016.

“I must tell you, I watched the shooting in particular in Tulsa, and that man was hands up, that man went to the car — hands up — put his hand on the car. To me, it looked like he did everything you're supposed to do. This young officer, I don't know what she was thinking. I don't know what she was thinking, but I'm very, very troubled by that, and we have to be very careful,” Trump said.

But that “troubled” feeling did not lead Trump as candidate, or now as president, to advocate for significant policy changes. He has not commented publicly about Clark's death.

How did the conversation about police reform that so dominated the news fall by the political wayside?

One reason is that, as with most movements, concerns about police violence against black Americans entered the national conversation in part because of heightened media attention. But Americans have short attention spans.

“It can be hard, understandably, to focus on things that feel like they aren’t happening. And we don’t lack for alternate story lines: hurricanes that wrecked Houston and Puerto Rico, homicidal white supremacists in Charlottesville and a massacre in Las Vegas that ranks as the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Still, if we collectively care about an issue only when the streets are literally burning, it’s reasonable to wonder if we actually care at all,” wrote Lowery, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of police shootings.

Another reason is that, despite repeatedly pledging during the campaign that he would keep black communities safer than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, would, Trump has not made it a major policy issue since taking office.

In fact, the president has actually encouraged more police violence, advising officers to rough up “thugs” they take into custody and instructing them on handling suspects. “Don’t be too nice,” he told police officers.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has openly criticized the legitimacy of Obama’s investigations of police forces and ordered a review of each of the inquiries before choosing not to open new ones.

But even though police shootings aren't dominating the political conversation, activists are keeping up the fight — and they are likely to make it a campaign issue in upcoming elections. Most black and white Americans said the deaths of blacks during encounters with police in recent years are signs of a broader problem, according to the Pew Research Center. Whether the political leaders agree isn't clear based on their actions.