Police shot and killed 987 people in the United States last year. That is two dozen more than in the year before and nearly identical to the number of people killed by police the year before that. The lack of appreciable change in the numbers is a depressing sign that, though much attention has been focused on this issue in the past three years, authorities are falling short in devising and implementing solutions.
The sobering look at the use of deadly force by police is the result of an unprecedented effort by the Washington Post to track fatal shootings in the aftermath of the national debate sparked by the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, outside St. Louis. The ongoing project, using local news coverage, public records and social media reports, has logged details of 2,945 shooting deaths. The Post’s compilation has pointed up the inadequacies of the FBI’s record-keeping, which relies on voluntary submissions from police and shows far fewer shootings. More importantly, the project has revealed patterns in the shootings that could lead to more effective action. The decline in the number of unarmed people shot suggests, for example, that heightened awareness and scrutiny may result in police showing more restraint before using deadly force in some circumstances.
Particularly striking is how often mental health issues play a role in police shootings. In 2017, 236 people — nearly 1 in 4 of those killed — were reported to have been experiencing some form of mental distress at the time of their encounter with police. That rate, the Treatment Advocacy Center calculated in a 2015 report, means the risk of being killed during a police incident is 16 times greater for individuals with untreated serious mental illness than for other civilians.
Expanding mental health services could reduce the number of police shootings. So might better training of police and the use of intervention teams schooled in how to respond to people in mental distress so that situations don’t escalate into someone being killed.
Police have dangerous jobs, and sometimes they must use deadly force to protect themselves or the public. But figuring out ways to avoid such shootings is in the interests of both the police and the public they serve.