In 2015, more scrutiny than ever was focused on how many American police officers killed citizens in the line of duty.
Tensions between civilians and United States police forces reached new heights as national protests drew attention to the judgment calls made by police when it came to the use of deadly force. After the death of Michael Brown in August of 2014 rocked Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post began compiling a detailed listing of every time an officer was involved in a fatal shooting.
Taking only 2015 into account, the news organization found that 964 people died as a result of injuries sustained from an officer’s firearm. Of that number, the majority, 58 percent, were also armed with a firearm. Just under a third were armed with another type of weapon, and nine percent were completely unarmed. Of the latter group, most were either mentally ill, suicidal, or attempted to flee the scene.
Analysis by the paper also differentiated the fatalities by race. Among those armed, the majority who were fatally shot were of Caucasian descent. In cases where the citizens killed by police were unarmed, the majority — around 60 percent — were of black or Hispanic descent.
These numbers are higher than the proportion of the population made up by these two ethnic groups: The most recent U.S. Census data indicates that 17 percent of Americans are Hispanic, while around 13.4 percent are black. Black men, noted The Post, account for six percent of U.S. population, while making up 40 percent of the unarmed people killed by police in 2015.
A Gallup poll released earlier this year noted that confidence in the U.S. police force is at its lowest point since 1993. Only 52 percent of respondents said that they trusted law enforcement was doing its best. As the Post noted, statistics about deaths at the hands of officers are more relevant than ever in the face of the current climate created by technology and an increasing lack of trust for the men in blue.
“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.”
These changes in the way that police actions in the field are dealt with are lauded by some and condemned by others. Les Neri, president of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police, told the Post that the way citizens see police shootings of civilians doesn’t account for the reality of dealing with the situation: there is no pause, rewind and freeze frame in real life, and, moreover, it’s not just a video.
“We now microscopically evaluate for days and weeks what they only had a few seconds to act on. People always say, ‘They shot an unarmed man,’ but we know that only after the fact. We are criminalizing judgment errors.”
For others, those videos are a saving grace that allows the public the chance to decide if an officer made the correct decision. Most recently, the death of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black man who was armed with a knife, showed LAPD officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the young man 16 times. The Los Angeles Times reported that just before the encounter, there was a radio call for a Taser — something that may have resulted in one less person killed by the police in 2015.
[Image via Spencer Platt/Getty Images]