According to the national database, an average of 1,500 people have been killed annual during interactions with police since 2000. And about 70% of those killings happen with guns.
“2020 is off the hook,” said Brian Burghart, Fatal Encounters’ founder and executive director. “There will be more people who died during police interactions [this year] than any other year in our records.”
Burghart estimates that the total number of deadly encounters this year will top 2,000. And, he said, “About 60% of those deaths will happen because of gunshots.”
At the same time, across the country, people are demanding more accountability and transparency from police departments — especially when deadly force is used. In response, cities like Dallas, Washington, D.C., Scottsdale Arizona and others are implementing new policies that require local law enforcement to release body-cam footage soon after officers shoot people or are accused of using excessive force, although the policies vary from city to city.
In order to better understand these policies, we tried to get a better handle on how often police kill people.
‘it’s a big deal’: the killings have lasting effects
Throughout 2020, there have been several high-profile, highly scrutinized incidents where police officers have killed. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Deon Kay, Jonathan Price. But beyond those tragic incidents, it’s worth asking whether Americans should be concerned about the number of people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Frank Edwards, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, says yes.
“Police violence is the sixth leading cause for young men in the United States,” he said.
Edwards researches state violence and its impact on racial inequality and public health. And according to him, the sorts of police violence that result in death are not limited to gunshot wounds.
“Gunshots are overwhelming[ly] the largest cause of death in use-of-force incidents,” he explained. “But when we include other causes of death from use-of-force incidents, vehicles tend to be a big source of death in policing. So, collisions from high-speed chases are pretty common.”
The other ways people die during police interactions, Edwards said, include “death by Taser, pepper spray, physical restraint and other forms of physical injuries like being struck by a club.”
Brian Burghart said these sorts of deadly police interactions go unnoticed because media outlets have done a poor job of accounting for and reporting on the deaths. He believes the country as a whole has relied too much on government messaging.
“Until Fatal Encounters started, people believed what the federal government was saying,” he said. “People just believed what they were told.”
Burghart said that media organizations that made this mistake led to communities of color being hurt by police. Edwards agrees: “It’s not just one death. Death has a psychological effect on entire communities. And that can end up creating a really toxic mix of forces that can hold a community down.”
Edwards said police killings, which happen more often per capita to people of color more than white people, destroy economic progress, lead to worse overall health and create an inadequate educational environment.
Do police-worn body cameras lead to better policing?
Dallas has one of the largest police departments in the country, and the city has spent millions on body-worn cameras over the past several years. And the officers wearing the cameras turn them on during all their interactions.
The hope, the city officials said in 2015, was that cameras would provide more transparency. But community members say that hasn’t worked exactly as planned because of incidents like the 2014 shooting of Jason Harrison.
The 38-year-old’s mother, Shirley, had called 9-1-1 on her son because he was “off the chain” and “incoherent.”
When police arrived and knocked on Shirley Harrison’s door, she walked out shaking her head and looking annoyed. She explained her son’s mental illness to officers by saying he was “Bipolar, schizo.” Then Jason walked to the door holding a screwdriver with the tips of his fingers.
The officers immediately asked Jason to drop the screwdriver, but things escalated quickly. Before Shirley Harrison could even say ‘Don’t shoot,’ ” officers had shot Jason Harrison five times.
Just 6 seconds after Jason appeared at the door, he was dying on the ground
So, with body cameras in Dallas capturing all sorts of interactions — deadly ones like this, along with routine ones — it’s worth asking: Are the cameras improving policing?
“Body-worn body cameras have proven to have some effect at some agencies, but not to have the same effect at other agencies,” said Seth Stoughton.
Stoughton’s a former police officer and investigator who studies and writes about policing at the University of South Carolina. And Stoughton says there can definitely be benefits to cameras. He says they provide more information about questionable incidents and can lead to better community and police engagement. But, he says, their mileage may vary.
“For example, Las Vegas showed a statistically significant decrease in use of force and a significant decrease in civilian complaints,” he said, “but Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department did not.”
Stoughton says factors like whether or not officers are required to record interactions, and whether supervisors review video and hold officers accountable play a big role in the success of police-worn body cameras.
Another factor is whether departments have consistent policies about releasing body camera footage.
“That protects the agency from accusations of unseemly delay and it also lets the public know ‘Look, good, bad or indifferent, we will make sure you get the video if there’s an issue, we will own it,’ ” Stoughton said.
Tonya McClary, Dallas’ director of community police oversight agrees with Stoughton. As the city’s first-ever police monitor, McClary reviews citizens’ complaints about police officers.
Recently, she partnered with city manager T.C. Broadnax and former Police Chief Reneé Hall to craft a policy that requires DPD to release body-cam footage within 72 hours of someone being hurt or dying during an interaction with officers.
“I would rather see officers have body-worn cameras than not,” McClary said. “I feel that a lot of things have been brought to light because of the use of body-worn cameras and in-car cameras.”
Still, she warns that we shouldn’t put all of our eggs in the police body camera basket.
“I was one of those people that when they said, ‘Oh! We’re gonna start giving police departments cameras!’ That this was going to revolutionize, you know, police behavior. And I am really shocked by the number of times that it doesn’t,” said McClary.
Will making the videos public change things?
John Fullinwider is a longtime activist in Dallas. He’s been marching on the city’s streets since 1977. Fullinwider is a co-founder of the group Mothers Against Police Brutality. And he’s never been surprised by the fact that police-worn body cameras haven’t drastically improved policing in Dallas.
“The video doesn’t prevent the shooting,” he said. “But it does allow you a way to investigate the shooting properly. I mean, you really could say ‘No video, no justice.’ ”
Fullinwider attended a silent vigil last week in front of Dallas Police headquarters. Moms sat in front of empty body bags, wearing veils over their faces.
And Fullinwider told me body cams and policies requiring police departments to release footage are worthwhile. But he’s still skeptical: “Let’s see what happens when there’s a controversial shooting or the video tape makes the officer look bad. And then we’ll see if they release it.”
Dorothy Osteen-Davis was one of the moms at the vigil. Her son Bertrand was shot and killed while unarmed during an anxiety attack in 2015. The two officers involved were never charged. Both officers had previously killed others in separate highly scrutinized incidents. They weren’t charged then, either.
Because of her experience, Davis doesn’t have faith in body cameras or the DPD’s new policy.
“You know, they can have body cameras and still shoot people and cover it up, because they do it all the time,” she said.
New camera and video release policies aim to repair that sort of mistrust. But experts like Seth Stoughton and officials dealing with this day-to-day like Tonya McClary say police-worn body cameras and the videos they provide are merely a tool. Real change, they say, comes from the top — in the form of training and accountability.