POLICE ARE shooting people fatally this year at twice the rate reported in past years to federal officials, a Post investigation has found. Most likely the disparity reflects poor reporting in official records. Many of the deaths occurred in troubling circumstances: victims were unarmed, running away, suffering from mental illness. The Post’s unprecedented examination should be useful in helping to reduce the number of such shootings. As a first step, it should spur the government to start collecting solid, systematic information about police use of lethal force.
The lack of a comprehensive national database documenting police shootings became glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The FBI tracks “justifiable homicides” by police officers, but since the reporting is voluntary, the numbers are spotty. More significantly, the focus on cases in which officers were deemed to have used lethal force legally doesn’t capture instances in which fatalities likely could have been avoided.
In their examination of 385 people shot by police nationwide in the past five months, Post reporters found that about half the time, police were responding to calls for help with a domestic disturbance or similarly complicated situation. Nearly a quarter of those killed — 92 victims — were identified as mentally ill. Particularly heartbreaking were accounts of family members who called police for help in handling mentally frail relatives only to watch their son or brother be gunned down. Catherine Daniels called 911 for help in persuading her son, who suffered from schizophrenia, to come in from the cold; he was shot in his underwear waving a broomstick.
“We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable,” said Ronald L. Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. New approaches are needed to replace police actions that can escalate minor incidents into violence — such as, according to Mr. Davis, “chasing down suspects, hopping fences and landing on top of someone with a gun.”
Some police shootings cannot be prevented, as revealed by cases of officers’ courage, which Post reporters also catalogued. And no one wants police to let down their guards and place themselves in danger. But police departments should be the first to agree that 2.6 fatal shootings a day — a pace of about 950 per year — is unacceptable.
Congress should mandate the collection and analysis of complete and reliable information. The justice system needs to do a better job of holding officers accountable. A good place to start is with new thinking like that demonstrated by Montgomery and Howard county officials. Recognizing that the public lacks confidence in local prosecutors’ ability to investigate the police with whom they work, the two counties’ prosecutors have agreed to investigate each other’s cases.
Most urgently, police and the officials for whom they work need to recognize there is a problem.
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