Opinion | What we can learn from the data on nonfatal police shootings

After Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Mo., Post reporters set out to answer a simple question. Exactly how many people are shot and killed by police? The FBI collects data but reporting by police departments is voluntary and many don’t participate. The Post investigation found that nearly 1,000 people — more than twice the number listed by the FBI — died in police-involved shootings in 2015. But those startling numbers (which sadly have remained unchanged each year since The Post started its database) were only part of the story. Also important is how many are shot by police and survive. A new Post investigation finds those numbers are equally startling.

The Post’s investigation examined 156 police departments that recorded five or more deadly police shootings from 2015 to 2020 and found that in addition to the 2,137 people who were killed, 1,609 were shot and wounded. The departments examined by The Post, ranging in size from small rural ones to those in major metropolitan areas, account for just a fraction of the more than 18,000 federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies in the United States, and so the figures provided only a narrow look at what is clearly a much wider problem. That there are no good numbers and no real scrutiny of nonfatal police shootings hinders the ability to devise strategies to address — and hopefully reduce — the use of lethal force.

Only a handful of states have requirements for the collection and public reporting of nonfatal police shootings, and the National Use-of-Force Data Collection established in 2015 has yet to release all of its information because one of its threshold requirements — at least 80 percent of law enforcement officers — has not been reached. That information gap makes all the more valuable the work of The Post in partnership with Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program. Among the findings of reporters Brian Howey, Wesley Lowery and Steven Rich: nearly all those shot were men and many struggled with addiction, homelessness and poverty. At least 1 in 5 who were shot was experiencing mental health crises and racial disparities were pronounced, with Black individuals disproportionately affected.

The damage in the way of debilitating injuries, trauma and legal problems is profound. But also put at risk in these encounters are police officers. Of the 3,746 fatal and nonfatal shootings examined by The Post, there were 246 in which at least one officer was shot; in those, 28 officers were killed and 279 were wounded.

The glimpse into nonfatal shooting provided by The Post should spur states to adopt policies in which any use of force — whether fatal or nonfatal — undergoes timely and meaningful review and the data is made available to the public. “That kind of information is necessary to develop strategies to reduce officer-involved shootings,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. “What matters is it was a shooting, whether they died or not. The real question is, what can we learn from that?”

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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