A year after Michael Brown’s fatal shooting, unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire
It begins with a relatively minor incident: A traffic stop. A burglary. A disturbance. Police arrive and tensions escalate. It ends with an unarmed black man shot dead.
That pattern played out in March in Madison, Wis., where police responded to reports of a man yelling and jumping in traffic.
It was repeated two months later in Los Angeles, where beachgoers complained that a homeless man was harassing people on the Venice boardwalk.
Ferguson: Three minutes that changed America
Pulling a year’s worth of reporting by more than 40 reporters into one definitive story, The Washington Post looks at the tumultuous series of events that began in Ferguson, Mo., and continued to Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, North Charleston, S.C., and throughout much of the country. (Illustrations by Peter Strain for The Washington Post)
Distraught people, deadly results
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It surfaced again in Cleveland, where police were called to a burglary at a corner store. And in Tallahassee, where a man was reported banging on someone’s door. And last month in Cincinnati, where Samuel DuBose, 43, wound up with a bullet in his head after being pulled over for driving without a front tag.
Perhaps most infamously, the pattern played out one year ago Sunday in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer searching for a convenience-store robber shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. That incident sparked a national movement to protest police treatment of African Americans and turned 18-year-old Michael Brown into a putative symbol of racial inequality in America.
So far this year, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police – one every nine days, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings. During a single two-week period in April, three unarmed black men were shot and killed. All three shootings were either captured on video or, in one case, broadcast live on local TV.
Those 24 cases constitute a surprisingly small fraction of the 585 people shot and killed by police through Friday evening, according to The Post database. Most of those killed were white or Hispanic, and the vast majority of victims of all races were armed.
However, black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Post’s analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.
The latest such shooting occurred Friday, claiming Christian Taylor, 19, a promising defensive back on the Angelo State University football team. Police said Taylor crashed an SUV through the front window of a car dealership in Arlington, Tex., and was shot in an altercation with responding officers. The case is under investigation.
The disproportionate number of unarmed black men in the body count helps explain why outrage continues to simmer a year after Ferguson — and why shootings that might have been ignored in the past are now coming under fresh public and legal scrutiny.
“Ferguson was a watershed moment in policing. Police understand they are now under the microscope,” said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which represents police rank-and-file.
Video shot by bystanders or captured on police camera, meanwhile, has served in some cases to undermine trust in police. So far this year, three officers have been charged with crimes after fatally shooting unarmed black men. All three were caught on video. One — the April shooting of Eric Harris in Tulsa — appears to have been an accident. But in the other two, the footage contradicted the officer’s initial account of what happened.
“Prior to Ferguson, police were politically untouchable. Ferguson changed that calculus,” said Georgetown University professor Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor whose book, “The Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” is scheduled to be published next year.
The Cincinnati shooting, seen from 3 body cameras
“Five years from now, every major police department in America will have officers who wear body cameras,” Butler said. “That is a change that is happening right now because of Ferguson.”
Some in law enforcement are troubled by this trend, worried that public sympathy is shifting toward suspects and away from the police who put their lives on the line every day. They are concerned that people will forget that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, was exonerated by Justice Department investigators, who found no evidence to refute Wilson’s contention that he fired in self-defense.
Most of all, they fear that the legacy of Ferguson will include a higher death toll for police.
“We are worried that police officers who should rely on their intuition and training to make a split-second decision — which could mean life or death for them — won’t do it. That their fear of being second-guessed, and maybe even prosecuted, will take over instead,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.
So far, there is no sign of an increase in police fatalities. Still, 18 law officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty by a suspect this year, including Memphis police officer Sean Bolton who died last weekend after a routine traffic stop.
Then and now
A police car burns: the scars from the burned cruiser in November are evident on the road. Since the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, the city of Ferguson, Mo., has evolved from a racial powder keg into a community where outrage continues to simmer a year later. Jahi Chikwendiu of The Washington Post took photos from last August and November; Jabin Botsford of The Post captured recent images.
In its ongoing analysis of every fatal shooting by police in 2015, The Post is separating the dead into four categories, based on information provided by police and other sources:
Someone is considered armed if he or she had a deadly weapon — such as a gun, a knife or a machete — or some other object that could inflict fatal injury given the circumstances of the encounter. People who drove aggressively at officers or otherwise used a vehicle to try to inflict harm are also considered armed.
A person is considered unarmed if he or she was not in possession of a weapon at the time of the shooting or was holding an object unlikely to inflict serious injury, such as a stick or a broom handle.
People brandishing pellet guns or other toy weapons — which often are indistinguishable from firearms — make up a third category.
And in some cases, The Post could not determine whether a person was armed because of conflicting accounts from witnesses or a lack of information.
Four black men fall into this last category, along with one black woman: Janisha Fonville, 20, who died in February after Charlotte police responded to a call about a domestic dispute. Police said Fonville, who had a history of mental illness, lunged at the officer with a knife. Fonville’s girlfriend, who summoned officers, said Fonville was no longer holding the weapon.
Deadly shootings by police by month, 2015
Black and unarmed
See details of the shootings
A person who is unarmed may nonetheless pose a threat. In April, for instance, New York City police shot and killed David Felix, 24, as they tried to arrest him for assaulting a friend and stealing her purse. Police said Felix, who was mentally ill, wrested away a police radio and battered one of the officers in the head.
In many of the 24 shootings of unarmed black men, however, the threat was not readily apparent, raising questions about the officers’ use of deadly force. In most of those cases, investigations are ongoing.
Video shows fatal shooting of Tulsa man by reserve deputy
The 24 dead range in age from 50 to 18, the same age as Michael Brown. Their killings took place in small towns and big cities, including Los Angeles, Owings Mills, Md., and Strong, Ark. Most occurred in the South, where blacks are more heavily concentrated, with five shootings occurring in Florida alone.
The events that led to the fatal encounter run the gamut. Routine traffic stops and calls about erratic or bothersome behavior were most common. Other shootings followed reports of petty theft or attempts by police to serve a warrant. Two shootings occurred during sting operations.
In each case, the situation rapidly spun out of control. Often, police said they pulled the trigger during a struggle or because the person physically attacked them. In at least four cases, police reported that the person appeared to be reaching for a weapon.
In some cases, police have not said why they opened fire. Naeschylus Vinzant, 37, was shot and killed in March by a member of an Aurora, Colo., SWAT team trying to arrest him on charges of kidnapping, robbery and parole violation. The case has been investigated by a special prosecutor and is under review by a grand jury.
Five months later, however, Aurora police have yet to publicly explain why they shot Vinzant; officials rebuffed requests for additional information.
The shooting of Kris Jackson, 22, has also been shrouded in silence. Authorities in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., have been so tight-lipped about the case that at first they wouldn’t respond to questions from Jackson’s mother.
Angela Ainley, 44, said she learned about the June 15 shooting the following day, when Jackson’s girlfriend sent her a message on Facebook complaining that the hospital was refusing to reveal his condition. Ainley, who owns a small financial-services company, drove from her home in Sacramento, about an hour away, to get answers; when none were forthcoming, it dawned on her that her son was dead.
“Nobody told me,” she sobbed in an interview. “My son died by himself.”
The family has since hired an attorney, Alan M. Laskin, who is conducting his own investigation in preparation for a wrongful-death lawsuit. Local authorities defended their reticence.
“There’s always those pressures in these kind of cases, but we’re going to do it right and make sure we have all the facts,” said Bill Clark, chief assistant to the El Dorado County prosecutor, who is reviewing the case.
“I’m not going to run in front of the microphones, Baltimore-like,” Clark said, in a reference to Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore prosecutor who grabbed headlines this spring by rapidly pursuing criminal charges against several police officers after Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, died in custody.
Jackson was shot at the Tahoe Hacienda Inn, where he had been living with his girlfriend. The two had been fighting, the early-morning disturbance drew the attention of other guests, and someone called police.
When police arrived, Jackson’s girlfriend opened the door while Jackson, who was wanted on a charge of possessing cocaine, ran into the bathroom and tried to climb out the first-floor window. According to Laskin, the girlfriend then heard a single gunshot.
She wheeled around to look for Jackson and found him hanging halfway out the window like “a kid dangling his legs off a bridge,” Laskin said. Jackson had been shot in the chest by a white police officer, Joshua Klinge, who had come around the back of the building.
After Klinge opened fire, according to the girlfriend’s account, Jackson had his hands up and was yelling, “Don’t shoot.”
South Lake Tahoe police have offered a similar account, up until the final moments when they said Klinge “perceived a deadly threat” — even though Jackson was shoeless, shirtless and unarmed. They have not revealed the nature of that threat, which Clark said is a focus of the investigation.
“The guy was fleeing out a window, so I don’t know. Is that a threat?” Clark said. “That is for us to decide how that works out when we get there.”
The girlfriend has not been named by police, and Laskin declined to provide her name or contact information. Klinge did not respond to a message left on his phone, and police declined to make him available for an interview.
Video: ‘His death transformed my life’
Tallahassee police have been more forthcoming about the February shooting of Jeremy Lett, 28. They released a stack of documents from their internal investigation, including the statement of officer David Stith, who fired the fatal shots.
But in the shadow of Ferguson, police faced intense pressure to justify their actions from protesters making troubling claims about the case.
The shooting occurred after Lett, an assistant minister at a local church, showed up around 8 p.m. at the Shadow Ridge Apartments and demanded to see a former neighbor. Her roommate told Lett to come back another time, but Lett persisted, banging on windows and doors. The roommate called police.
Stith was working a traffic accident when he responded to the call. According to documents released by police, Stith found Lett passed out on the stoop of an apartment and scanned his face with the beam of his flashlight.
Lett’s eyes shot open. He leaped to his feet, let out three loud screams and ran toward the officer, who said he sidestepped Lett at the last moment. Lett fell, but got up and charged again.
Stith says he then came under sustained attack. He said he tried unsuccessfully to subdue Lett with a Taser, then had to draw his gun. Stith said he fired once, and still Lett kept coming, knocking the officer to the ground.
Finally, Stith said he kicked his feet up in the air to fend Lett off while firing a series of shots into Lett’s chest. Lett collapsed on top of Stith, and the officer called for medical assistance.
“Shots fired! Roll EMS,” Stith said into his radio, according to police documents. One minute 57 seconds had elapsed since Stith had responded to the burglary call.
“I don’t know what the f— was wrong with this f—ing guy, but he just started coming at me and coming at me,” a rattled Stith told officers who arrived on the scene. “I just kept firing because he wouldn’t stop f—ing coming.”
Lett was shot five times.
Although Stith is black, university students involved with Dream Defenders, a group formed after the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, contended that Lett was racially profiled. Protesters rallied outside the local prosecutors’ office demanding that Stith be charged. Photos of Lett in a pinstripe suit and clergy collar began circulating on the Internet.
The medical examiner later determined that Lett had a significant amount of cocaine in his system when he died. Since a grand jury concluded in late February that the shooting was justified, the protests have died down.
Frank Shephard was killed on live TV. No one had to badger Houston police for information about his case. But the video footage of Shephard’s last moments has only intensified questions about why he is dead.
The 41-year-old barber sped away from a routine traffic stop in April, leading police on a high-speed chase that was covered live by local TV stations. News helicopters hovered over Shephard’s blue Chrysler 300 as it veered along the streets of Houston, crashing into two cars before rolling to a stop in oncoming traffic.
The 24 unarmed black men shot dead by police so far in 2015
On average, an unarmed black man was fatally shot by police every nine days in the first seven months of 2015. Read the summaries of those 24 cases, based on news reports and additional reporting.
(Lettering by Peter Strain for The Washington Post)
Shephard stepped out of the vehicle. Then, something happened that caused startled TV producers to cut away: As Shephard reached back into the Chrysler, two officers opened fire and Shephard slumped motionless near the open car door.
Since then, Shephard’s mother, Cheryl, has watched and rewatched the last moments of her son’s life. She and other relatives think Shephard was probably tangled in the seat belt or was trying to grab his phone.
Moments earlier, he had dialed 911 to falsely report that he had a child in the car, a failed effort, perhaps, to save his own life. In the heat of the chase, he had also called his mother to say goodbye.
“They’re just shooting them down,” Cheryl Shephard said of police treatment of black men. “I watched my son die, and I don’t even know why.”
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, has also watched the video. In his opinion, Shephard wasn’t trapped in the seat belt. Hunt says he’s not sure what Shephard was doing.
Whatever it was, Hunt said, “it’s unfortunate that he made the decision that day to reach back into the vehicle and the officers had to draw the conclusion that he had a weapon.”
Hunt declined to make the officers — identified by Houston police as L. Ingle, a white male, and R. Gonzalez, a Hispanic male — available for an interview. Both are back on active duty.
Nothing was clear-cut about the death of Nicholas Thomas. As in Ferguson last year, understanding of the March shooting outside Atlanta has been confounded by conflicting witness statements, inconclusive physical evidence and the absence of decisive video footage.
In The Post’s analysis, Thomas, 23, is among the five black victims who could not be conclusively categorized as unarmed.
In early July, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Cobb County prosecutor declared the shooting justified; a county grand jury declined to pursue criminal charges. But last week, under the lingering shadow of Ferguson, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia announced that he was effectively reopening the case.
Fatal police shooting in Smyrna, Ga.
What’s known from witness statements and surveillance video is this: One day after lunch, Thomas, who worked as a mechanic at a Goodyear tire center, was preparing to service a customer’s Maserati. He grabbed the keys and photographed the car, as was his habit whenever he worked on a sports car, according to his father, Huey. Then Thomas began driving the car toward the service bay.
Suddenly, five officers from Smyrna, Ga., and Cobb County showed up to arrest Thomas for violating probation from a 2013 assault on a police officer. They blocked off the parking lot, and several officers, including one with a police dog, began chasing the car on foot.
After trying to evade officers, the car disappeared out of view of a company security camera. Shots rang out. Thomas was hit once in the back.
He did not have a weapon.
Smyrna Police Chief David Lee said the officer who shot Thomas, Sgt. Kenneth Owens, thought Thomas was trying to run down the K-9 officer. Owens described the shooting in a videotaped interview with internal affairs investigators, his voice cracking.
“The vehicle went into drive, aggressively came forward, wide open, engine revving. As I came around the building, I realized, ‘Oh hell, you ain’t got no cover if this individual comes out with a weapon or comes at you.’ ”
Owens said he “was able to get out of the way where I didn’t need to engage the threat.” But then he spotted his colleague.
Smyrna, GA . July 30, 2015 . Huey and Felicia Thomas at their home in Smyrna, GA. They are parents of Nicholas Thomas, who was fatally shot by police on March 24. (Photo by Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post).
“I’ll never forget his face,” Owens said. “I could see his eyes, that he was placed in a situation where he didn’t know how to act, just to get the hell out of the way, and get his dog out of the way. He had nowhere to go. The car was headed directly at him.”
Owens said the shooting is “kind of like a fog. . . . I think I shot three times.”
Another customer, Brittney Eustache, 26, disputed parts of that account. In a videotaped interview with detectives the day after the shooting, Eustache said police opened fire after the Maserati crashed into a curb.
“Cops were everywhere,” Eustache said. “They say, ‘Sir, step out your car.’ They say it twice, he doesn’t get out of the car. Then they open fire.”
By that point, Thomas had already been wounded, according to Owens’s attorney, Lance LoRusso. What Eustache saw, he said, were bean bags shot to break the Maserati’s tinted windows and to force Thomas out of the car.
Thomas left behind a baby daughter. His parents have notified Smyrna officials that they plan to file a wrongful-death lawsuit. Huey Thomas said he is grateful for the Justice Department review.
“I don’t think they would have taken it,” he said, “if not for Ferguson and the other cases that are happening.”
The Smyrna police chief said he, too, welcomes the federal investigation.
“If they find something that my officer has done wrong,” Lee said, “I will act accordingly.”
Alexander reported from Smyrna, Ga. Kimberly Kindy, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Steven Rich contributed to this report.
Rallying point: Protesters from last August have been replaced by overgrown weeds.