Washington: For the third year in a row, US police shot and killed nearly 1,000 people, a grim annual tally that has persisted despite widespread public scrutiny of officers’ use of fatal force.
Police fatally shot 987 people last year, or two dozen more than they killed in 2016, according to an ongoing Washington Post database project that tracks the fatal shootings. Since 2015, the paper has logged the details of 2,945 shooting deaths, culled from local news coverage, public records and social media reports.
While many of the year-to-year patterns remain consistent, the number of unarmed black males killed in 2017 declined from two years ago. Last year, police killed 19, a figure tracking closely with the 17 killed in 2016. In 2015, police shot and killed 36 unarmed black males.
Experts said they are uncertain why the annual total shows little fluctuation — the number for 2017 is almost identical to the 995 killed by police in 2015.
Some believe the tally may correspond to the number of times police encounter people, an outcome of statistical probability. Other experts are exploring whether the number tracks with overall violence in American society.
“The numbers indicate that this is not a trend, but a robust measure of these shootings,” said Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who studies police use of force. “We now have information on almost 3,000 shootings, and we can start looking to provide the public with a better understanding of fatal officer-involved shootings.”
National scrutiny of shootings by police began after an unarmed black teenager from a suburb of St Louis was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked widespread protests, prompted a White House commission to call for reforms, galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement and led many police agencies across the nation to examine their use of deadly force. The attention may have helped police reduce the number of unarmed people shot and killed each year, according to interviews with experts and police departments.
On the low
Officers fatally shot 94 unarmed people in 2015, but that number has been lower in the past two years, with 51 killed in 2016 and 68 in 2017.
“The national spotlight on this issue has made officers more cautious in unarmed situations,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. Wexler also said that the training that his group developed for dozens of departments to de-escalate police encounters with civilians may be having an impact.
“We are giving officers more options like slowing the situation down and using time and distance to gain a tactical advantage,” he said.
While the number of black males — armed and unarmed — who have been killed has fallen, black males continue to be shot at disproportionately high rates, the data shows.
Black males accounted for 22 per cent of all people shot and killed in 2017, yet they are 6 per cent of the total population. White males accounted for 44 per cent of all fatal police shootings, and Hispanic males accounted for 18 per cent.
Other patterns also held steady in 2017, according to the database. Police again most frequently used fatal force after encountering people armed with knives or guns, killing 735, a number nearly identical to the 734 armed people and killed in 2015.
White males continued to account for the largest group of people killed while armed with guns or knives, at 330 of those killed. Black males armed with guns or knives were fatally shot in 160 cases last year.
Meanwhile, the number of police officers feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2017 stood at 46, a decline from the 66 recorded in 2016, said FBI.