Who’s Keeping Count?

Keith Childress Jr. was the last person to be fatally shot by a police officer in the United States in 2015. His death on December 31 brought the final number of police related shooting deaths to 986.

Two weeks prior to his death, Mr. Childress, who was wanted for a number of felonies, failed to show up to his sentencing hearing. He fled to Las Vegas and was staying with friends when U.S. Marshals learned of his whereabouts. Unfortunately, there was miscommunication and the local officers were told that Mr. Childress was wanted on attempted murder. Around 2 pm on December 31, two officers on patrol in Las Vegas came across Mr. Childress and drew their weapons. Over the next couple of minutes, the officers gave commands 24 times. After ignoring the commands of the officers, Mr. Childress walked towards the officers while concealing something in his right hand. The officers believed he had a gun and opened fire on him, striking him five times. It was soon discovered that Mr. Childress was holding onto his cellphone.

The officers were placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation and the Undersheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department speculated that Mr. Childress was attempting to commit “suicide by cop.”

This is just one of the many unfortunate fatal incidents that occurred last year, and while no two cases are the same, they all ended the same way, 986 times.Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, theWashington Post began a yearlong project to document every fatal shooting by a police officer in 2015. Their year end report featured six key takeaways:

  • Mental illness played a role in one quarter of incidents.

  • One quarter of fatal shootings involved a fleeing suspect.

  • Indictments of police officers tripled in 2015, compared with previous years.

  • Body cameras captured six percent of the killings.

  • In three-quarters of the fatal shootings, police were under attack or defending someone who was.

  • One in ten people shot and killed by police were unarmed.

As citizens we should be alarmed that nearly 1,000 lives were lost at the hands of police officers in 2015. While there are certainly cases where the action taken by police was justified, it’s important that we ask how the number got so high. The Post started this project when it became clear that no federal agency had accurate documentation on police related deaths. The  FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics currently collect this data, however according to the Post, their collection methods are “deeply flawed”.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) began collecting data on arrest-related deaths back in 2003 by assigning State Reporting Coordinators (SRCs) in all 50 states. These Coordinators collected the arrest-related deaths (ARD) in their state and reported it back to BJS. However, in the Bureau’s methodology it states, “BJS offered guidance to the SRCs on how to collect ARD data, but a standard methodology was not required.” Because the Bureau did not mandate a standard method data collection, too many deaths went unreported and the product was an unreliable annual report. The program was suspended in March of 2014.

“It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country,” FBI Director James Comey said.

It’s troublesome that the Washington Post produced more accurate data on arrest-related deaths than the FBI or any other federal agency. In the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Government, “The government of a political community bears responsibility to legislate, enforce, and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare, and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction.” I do not believe that our government can responsibly act on police reform if the data is incomplete or inaccurate.

Another finding by the Washington Post that demands our attention is the role that mental illness played in so many of these incidents. They report that mental illness played a role in one in four police shooting deaths in 2015. The majority of the calls made to police officers in regards to a mentally ill person were from a family member or friend concerned about their behavior. Their distress call was for the person to get help. Although many of them were armed when the police were called, more than half of the officers who responded were not trained in dealing with the mentally ill.  This needs to be addressed, both in police training, but also in how our society cares for the mentally ill.

It’s important to understand that not all of these individuals were innocent and that the police play a vitally important role in keeping our communities safe. However these individuals were all created in the image of God. The Post includes the names and stories of each person. It’s important to tell these stories so that we can understand the problem, address it more effectively, and remember them as more than just a number. TheWashington Post will continue the study this year and has reported that that as of today 329 people have been shot and killed by the police in 2016. If this trend continues, by 2017, over 1,000 people will have died in a police-related shooting. Let us be a people and a country sees this as unacceptable, asks questions, and demands change.  

-Farnel Maxime '17 is a Clarendon Scholar and Presidential Fellow at Gordon College with a double major in political science and philosophy.