As fatal police shootings increase, more go unreported
The Washington Post December 6, 2022
Fewer fatal police shootings are recorded by the federal government every year, despite renewed scrutiny of police use of force and millions of dollars spent to encourage local law enforcement to report the data.
Even though federal records indicate that fatal shootings by police have been declining nationwide since 2015, The Washington Post's Fatal Force database shows the opposite is true: Officers have shot and killed more people every year, reaching a record high in 2021 with 1,047 deaths. The FBI database contains only about one third of the 7,000 fatal police shootings during this time — down from half when The Post first started tracking.
Fatal shootings by officers in at least 2,250 police and sheriffs' departments are missing from the past seven years of federal records, according to an analysis of the database maintained by The Post, which began tracking the killings in 2015. The excluded data has created a misleading government picture of police use of force, complicating efforts at accountability.
The incomplete data also obscures a racial discrepancy among those killed by police that is larger than the federal data suggests. Black people are fatally shot by police far more often than is evident in the FBI data, The Post has found — at more than double the rate for white people.
Among the missing data: shootings by officers in 440 departments whose local governments received nearly $90 million in federal grants to track and report crime data; and shootings from another 700 departments required by local laws to report the killings to state authorities, but no higher.
In at least 34 states, laws require police to report crime data to the state. But most of the laws are vague about whether police shootings must be included, offering minimal accountability at the state or local level, The Post found. In California, for example, only half of departments' fatal police shootings appear in the FBI data.
Boston was among the larger departments with missing data: The Post documented 11 fatal shootings by its officers since 2015, but none of those are recorded in the FBI's records. The Chicago Police Department reported six officer-involved shootings, but The Post logged 45. Police in Boise, Idaho, fatally shot 12 people, whose deaths were not recorded in the FBI database.
"This shows that the data from the FBI, the FBI database, has largely failed," said Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a University of Maryland professor who has testified at state and federal levels about police reform. That some departments have received federal dollars while their shootings are unreported, he said, "speaks to how flawed the system currently is, not just the organizational structure of policing, but also the way that government funding operates."
The FBI asks the roughly 18,000 law enforcement departments nationwide to report all homicides — including those by officers on duty — so that the information can be used for research and be made available to the public. But compliance is mandatory only for federal law enforcement. The Post found that only about 290 local departments reported all fatal police shootings to the FBI since 2015.
The decline in reporting is driven by multiple factors. In many cases, departments simply choose not to report fatal police shootings to the FBI. In others, departments are required by law to send data to state officials who neglect to forward it to the FBI. About a dozen departments told The Post they had failed to report shootings because of clerical errors and would improve their process.
In New Mexico, Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said he incorrectly assumed that other departments that are called in to investigate his officers' shootings would report the homicides. Farmington police fatally shot four people over seven years. Not one of those is listed in the FBI's public database.
"What we wound up learning is that we need to change how we're reporting," Hebbe told The Post, adding: "If it's our action, we need to be reporting it."
In recent years, departments' contributions to federal data have dwindled as the FBI transitions to a more detailed reporting system. The bureau said it rejects data that isn't properly formatted.
Criminologists say that a lack of accurate FBI data makes it difficult to know the full scope of police use of deadly force, despite renewed scrutiny that began with the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Experts say that the FBI's flawed data conceals other patterns that could help the Justice Department identify troubled departments — and lead to reforms. A high rate of police shootings relative to other departments of a similar size could be a sign that an agency's officers need additional training, said Jacob Kaplan, a criminologist at Princeton University.
"Without this kind of data, it's hard to have the foresight of which agencies are going to have a problem," Kaplan said.
In the California town of Vallejo, population 120,000, police have fatally shot six people in the past seven years. FBI records do not include any of them.
One of the people shot was Willie McCoy, a 20-year-old rapper who performed under the stage name "Willie Bo." In 2019, police found McCoy, either asleep or unconscious, in his car in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant with a gun in his lap, according to a special prosecutor's report on the shooting. Officers ordered McCoy to show his hands, the report said. Officers said that when McCoy awoke, they thought he was reaching for the gun. They fired 55 times, killing him.
The report found that the six officers involved were legally justified in the shooting, although one was fired for handling his firearm in a way that officials said could have endangered a fellow officer. McCoy's family disputes that he had a gun in his lap and has filed a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit in federal court. "Allegations are just that — allegations," lawyers for Vallejo said in a filing asking the judge to dismiss the case. "They are not proof VPD personnel actually used excessive force." That suit is pending.
McCoy's death and those of five others are absent from the FBI's public database. California law requires that fatal police shootings be reported to the state. The state attorney general's office then sends data to the FBI. Vallejo police did not respond to requests for comment.
The attorney general's office said it relies on departments to report accurately and follows up to offer support, but the law has no penalty for noncompliant departments. The Post found that 500 fatal shootings in California — nearly half of the state's total since 2015 — were missing from the FBI database.
The racial disparity in fatal police shootings in California is far larger than the nationwide disparity, The Post has found. Black people in the state are killed by police at nearly four times the rate of white people.
In Vallejo, two of the people killed by police were Black, McCoy being one of them. Three were Hispanic, and one was White.
McCoy's brother, Kori, said the FBI records fail to capture the true picture of Vallejo police. "The sirens should have been ringing years and years ago," he said.
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The FBI has been collecting summarized statistics from police departments since the 1930s, including through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, or UCR.
In the 1980s, the bureau introduced the National Incident-Based Reporting System to collect more details, including victim demographics, and in recent years has shifted departments to this program. But, as with the UCR, the new program is mandatory only for federal law enforcement agencies, and most local departments do not participate.
As an incentive, the Justice Department distributes about $285 million annually through the Justice Assistance Grant program. State and local governments, which pass the money on to area police and sheriffs' departments, receive their share according to a formula that considers the amount of crime police departments report and the local populations.
Departments must report at least three years of homicide and other major crime data to be eligible for funding. The data does not have to be complete for departments to receive money, said Tannyr Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Office of Justice Programs. However, she said missing information may result in smaller grant awards.
On average each year, about 1,400 local jurisdictions are allocated funding under the program. Within those, 440 departments had no fatal shootings by police reported in the past seven years, but The Post found they had shot and killed nearly 1,300 people in that time. Their local governments received nearly $86 million in that time.
The Justice Department also offers funding to help police and sheriffs' departments upgrade their computer systems "to establish or enhance their participation" in crime data reporting. There are no provisions in the grant for withholding funds.
The Post identified six departments — including the city of Boston's and smaller sheriff's departments — whose jurisdictions received nearly $2.6 million from the program between 2015 and 2021, yet their fatal police shootings are not included in the FBI data.
Boston police received the bulk of that funding — about $2.2 million — in 2016. Since then, Boston officers have shot and killed 10 people whose deaths are not recorded in the FBI database.
Mariellen Burns, a spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, said that one of those shootings occurred in another jurisdiction and six had only recently been ruled justified by the district attorney. "When those came through, a step was missed and they weren't updated," she said. The remaining three are still under investigation. "We're definitely going to have training reminders and refreshers for those who are responsible for this type of reporting," she said, adding that it was helpful for the department to be made aware of the missing data. "We're not going to get better unless we look at how we can improve."
Some departments balk at reporting fatal shootings by police alongside homicides by civilians because most officers' killings are ruled justified, criminologists said. The FBI records fatal shootings by police as "justifiable homicides-officer involved."
"It's been a long-running discussion," said Michael C. Walker, a criminologist and former police chief in New Jersey. "Justifiable homicide is not a crime, so why is it housed in this publication called 'Crime in the United States'?" In some cases, officer-involved homicides are proved to be crimes, such as the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
At a meeting in Pittsburgh this year, an advisory subcommittee for the FBI's data collection program considered a proposal from some in law enforcement to exclude fatal shootings by police from the public database — and submit them instead to an internal FBI collection. Some information eventually would be made public, but only in summary form.
The group ultimately rejected the idea. "If the FBI stops reporting it, it's going to look like they're trying to hide the data," said Princeton's Kaplan, who, along with Walker, is a member of the committee. "I don't see a benefit to switching."
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The lack of accountability on the state and local level is at the root of the missing FBI data. In Kansas, for example, departments must report "all felony and misdemeanor offenses" to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which said it sends the data to the FBI. The handbook on reporting data to the state notes that departments are "required" to report "justifiable homicides."
But the state bureau interprets the law to exclude them. "Since a Justifiable Homicide isn't a crime, there is no felony or misdemeanor offense to report," Melissa Underwood, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said in an email.
Only two departments in the state have fatal shootings in the database, leaving more than 60 deaths unreported over the past seven years.
As of 2021, at least 14 states had laws that specifically required reporting of fatal police shootings to the state. Of those, five state agencies told The Post that they voluntarily forward data they receive to the FBI's public database.
Virginia is the only state that requires a state agency to report local departments' fatal police shootings to the FBI database. Still, The Post found that 63 fatal shootings by officers in 43 departments in that state are missing from the FBI data.
"We, VSP, don't know what we don't know," Keon Turner, a data analyst for the Virginia State Police, said in an email. "The onus is on the agencies to enter the information at their level and forward it to us."
A few states have consequences for failing to report, but those repercussions are often vague, and state agencies rarely, if ever, enforce them. The Post found no departments that had been penalized for noncompliance.
In Pennsylvania, a 2004 law requires departments to report all offenses to the state police. The state police, which sends the data to the FBI, said it interprets the law to include fatal shootings by police.
Although the law specifies that funding should be withheld for noncompliance, state police said they are unaware of any departments having been penalized. Departments "typically comply," said Myles Snyder, a spokesman for state police.
But more than 50 fatal shootings by Pennsylvania police departments are missing from FBI data over seven years. Snyder said some departments have not switched to the FBI's new reporting system, whose format he said prevented the state from forwarding those departments' data. Pennsylvania law does not require police to transition to the new reporting system.
For those grieving after a deadly shooting by police, the realization that their loved one remains uncounted by the FBI deepens the pain of their loss.
"He wasn't just a nothing. He was a person, and they killed him," said Michelle White. Her brother, Glen Allen White, was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy in Pope County, Ark., in 2020.
White, 53, was drunk and distraught when family members called authorities for help. A deputy who arrived at the family's home readied his Taser while White pulled out a folding knife, according to a report by the county prosecutor. White approached, and the deputy holstered his Taser and instead drew his gun.
The deputy yelled at White to stop moving and then fired four shots, the report said. White's body crumpled on the dirt road.
The prosecutor declined to press charges, determining that the shooting was justified because the officer believed that a Taser could not have stopped White as he walked toward him with a knife.
White is one of three people shot and killed by Pope County deputies over the past seven years. All three shootings are absent from FBI records.
Asked about the omissions, Sgt. Rodney McNeese, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, said Arkansas State Police investigates the deputies' shootings and should report them to the FBI.
Arkansas does not have a law explicitly mandating that departments report their fatal shootings, but the FBI asks that the agency in the jurisdiction where a shooting occurred submit the data.
Regardless of whose job it was to report, Michelle White feels that her brother's shooting should have been counted.
"If they don't report anything, then you wouldn't know if they make a habit of doing this," she said. "If they make a habit of this, something needs to be done."
The Washington Post's Jennifer Jenkins, Paige Moody, Julie Tate, Steven Rich, Monika Mathur and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.