Nearly a thousand times this year, an American police officer has shot and killed a civilian.
When the people hired to protect their communities end up killing someone, they can be called heroes or criminals — a judgment that has never come more quickly or searingly than in this era of viral video, body cameras and dash cams. A single bullet fired at the adrenaline-charged apex of a chase can end a life, wreck a career, spark a riot, spike racial tensions and alter the politics of the nation.
About this story: The killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer last year in Ferguson, Mo., ignited a national debate and exposed the federal government’s failure to track the use of deadly force by police. The Washington Post launched a comprehensive project to log every on-duty fatal shooting by police in 2015. The resulting database chronicled shootings nationwide in real time, using news reports and other public sources. The Post compiled data about each death, including the race of those killed, whether they were armed and descriptions of the events. The project revealed that police nationwide were killing more than twice as many people as the FBI had previously reported. In October, the agency’s director, James B. Comey, said it was “unacceptable” that journalists had become the leading source of information on the subject. In December, an FBI official told The Post the agency is overhauling how it tracks violent police encounters, calling it “the highest priority.” The Post will continue tracking fatal shootings by police in 2016.
In a year-long study, The Washington Post found that the kind of incidents that have ignited protests in many U.S. communities — most often, white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings. Meanwhile, The Post found that the great majority of people who died at the hands of the police fit at least one of three categories: they were wielding weapons, they were suicidal or mentally troubled, or they ran when officers told them to halt.
The Post sought to compile a record of every fatal police shooting in the nation in 2015, something no government agency had done. The project began after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, provoking several nights of fiery riots, weeks of protests and a national reckoning with the nexus of race, crime and police use of force.