Suzanne Del Rosario visits the memorial to Michael Brown in Ferguson on March 14, 2015. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Joshua Lott

On Oct. 27, an Uber driver in Pompano Beach, Fla., reported that he had been carjacked. A passenger attacked him, slashing his hand with a knife and stealing his Mercedes-Benz, the driver said.

The driver had left his cellphone in the car, and police tracked it into Palm Beach County. Sheriff's deputies found the vehicle and 20-year-old Ryan Fallo. He ignored commands to drop the knife and approached them, the sheriff's office said, and they shot and killed him. The shooting was later ruled justified.

The Palm Beach Sheriff's Office released a photo of a knife with what appeared to be blood on the blade and handle. But it did not release the names of the two deputies involved. Instead, it kept their identities confidential under a Florida law billed as a way to protect crime victims. On paperwork invoking the law, both deputies signed their names in the space marked "Signature of Victim."

"I don't know why they're claiming themselves as potential victims ... He posed no threat. He didn't have a gun," said Ryan Fallo's father, Larry. "I just think it's concerning when they pull up the blue shield and hide behind it."

The two Palm Beach deputies are not alone in using the law to shield their identities after shooting and killing someone. It's a new twist in the otherwise unchanging landscape of fatal police shootings, which have continued daily despite a pandemic, protests and pushes for reform.

The Washington Post began tracking fatal shootings by on-duty police officers in 2015, the year after a White officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed a Black 18-year old. Over the past six years, officers have fatally shot more than 6,400 people, an average of nearly a thousand a year, or almost three each day. The yearly toll even reached a new high of 1,021 fatal shootings in 2020. Midway through this year, fatal police shootings are down compared with the same period last year. They have fluctuated month to month since the project began, ending near 1,000 annually.

Since Ferguson, departments across the country have taken steps toward reform, but these efforts have been inconsistent and incomplete. Most police departments still do not use body cameras. Experts in law enforcement and criminal justice say there have not been the large-scale policy or legal shifts that might reduce uses of force. And sending mental health teams in response to people in crisis, alongside or instead of armed officers, remains the exception.

The fatal shootings range from what experts describe as the unavoidable - including officers coming under gunfire - to a handful that prosecutors consider criminal. Most of those killed have been armed. Nearly every shooting has been ruled justified. But observers and experts contend many could have been averted with less-aggressive tactics.

American policing is not set up for across-the-board shifts, experts said, given that there are more than 15,000 local police and sheriff's departments, each with its own policies, practices and training.

"There's enormous inertia to the police practices that lead to shooting," said Richard Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania. "Whatever's driving police shootings probably changes gradually."

Efforts to change policing are also complicated by the politics of reform, with those on the left blaming overly aggressive policing and systemic racism, and those on the right arguing that unjustified police shootings are rare and not motivated by bias.

Police patrol a nation awash with firearms, and researchers have found higher rates of fatal shootings by officers in states where gun ownership is higher. Countries where police kill fewer people tend to have fewer guns.

In the United States, fatal shootings by police are both rare and constant. Tens of millions of people cross paths with police each year, and most of those encounters end without the use of force.

"The vast majority of those fatal shootings are lawful, righteous shootings," said Daniel Oates, a former police chief in Miami Beach, Aurora, Colo., and Ann Arbor, Mich.

But, he said, "a percentage of them are bad training, bad policy, bad day by the cop, not performing at their best." Prosecutors charged more officers for on-duty shootings in 2020 in comparison with 2019. Still, Oates said that despite the fusillade of criticism, policing has improved significantly.

"The narrative of the last year has been that 'Oh my God, police are wildly out of control,' " Oates said. "That's not true. If you tracked that [fatal shooting] data from 30, 40 years ago, I'm sure the numbers would be much, much, much, much higher. There's been a reform movement around the use of force in American policing."

The New York City Police Department, where Oates once worked, publishes annual reports on its officers' uses of force. In the early 1970s, officers in the country's biggest local police force shot and killed dozens of people each year. By the 2010s, the number was in the single digits in many years.

Nationwide data, however, are incomplete. Between 1976 and 2015, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program recorded no more than 460 fatal shootings by police in any single year. The Post's database, launched in 2015, has found more than double that number every year. The FBI's long-promised new program meant to fill the gaps is voluntary - and still incomplete.

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In some cases, the only surviving witnesses are the officers involved. Despite a push since 2015 for police body cameras and the periodic emergence of surveillance footage or bystander cellphone video, more than 80% of fatal police shootings still were not filmed, according to The Post's database.

Some fatal shootings draw intense scrutiny of police actions that might otherwise escape notice. After Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor in March 2020, the uproar led to reforms.

But few cases become national news. When police in Springfield, Ore., shot and killed a 32-year-old named Chase Brooks the day after Taylor was killed, his death received little notice outside the area. "He's not on the news every day like everybody else has been," Karen Brooks said about her son.

Police and other officials often cite ongoing investigations, exemptions in public records laws or other restrictions in declining to release information, documents or footage after shootings. A Post investigation found that in 2015, departments withheld the names of officers in about 1 in 5 fatal shootings.

In Florida, some departments have gone a step further and are now turning to the use of Marsy's Law to shield their officers' names. This law, which voters passed in 2018, says victims of crimes can ask authorities to keep private "information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family." More than a dozen states, including Kentucky, have adopted similar measures. The deputies in Palm Beach County both invoked it after Fallo's death last year.

The top prosecutor in Palm Beach County declined to file charges in the killing. In a letter in May, State Attorney Dave Aronberg said a police dashboard camera filmed the deputies "unsuccessfully pleading with Fallo to surrender peacefully" and drop the knife, and that a bystander's cellphone footage showed Fallo moving toward the deputies. Fallo raised the knife "and began to make a lunging motion towards the officers," who then shot him, Aronberg wrote.

The secrecy measure in Florida has generated controversy. An investigation by ProPublica and USA Today last year found that sheriff's offices there routinely shielded the names of officers who "used force that resulted in a civilian's injury."

It also has led to a court battle. Two police officers in Tallahassee shot and killed people in separate incidents last year, and city officials intended to name the officers, but a police union fought that in court. An appeals court sided with the officers, and the case is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

These cases are stark examples of a pattern that experts say persists nationwide: After police kill someone, they also often shape what the public learns about the killing.

"They write the reports, they give the statements, and other people's accounts are not taken seriously," said Philip Stinson, a criminology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Sometimes, Stinson said, video evidence will disprove an officer's statement or the police account. In Minneapolis, police put out a statement after George Floyd died on May 25, 2020, saying he "physically resisted officers" before "suffering medical distress." The emergence of a bystander's cellphone video showing Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd under his knee portrayed a far different reality.

"But in most of these cases," Stinson said, "police still own the narrative."

- - -

Two weeks after Floyd was filmed gasping for air, an officer in Atlanta shot a 27-year-old Black man in the back, killing him during a confrontation at a Wendy's restaurant.

Officers at the scene were responding to a complaint about a man asleep in a car at a drive-through when they encountered Rayshard Brooks. He failed a field sobriety test, grabbed a Taser from an officer and ran, pointing it at the officer who shot him, officials said. This shooting, coming amid nationwide protests, spurred a new wave of public anger, and the Atlanta police chief resigned.

Since The Post began tracking cases, Black people have been shot and killed at higher rates than White people.

White people are 60% of the American population and have accounted for 45% of those fatally shot by police. Black people are 13% of the population but have been 23% of those shot and killed by police. (In about 1 in 10 cases, The Post has not been able to determine the race of the person killed by police.)

In a 2016 report, the Center for Policing Equity, a research group, studied use-of-force data - from fatal police shootings to physical encounters - for a dozen police departments and found stark racial disparities. The report found that the average use-of-force rate for Black people was 2.5 times higher than the overall rate and 3.6 times the rate for White people.

Racial disparities persist because they are part of the larger, systemic issues that play out in policing, said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"We have very clear evidence that these disparities are real," he said.

"Black and Hispanic people are killed at higher rates by way of their being stopped at higher rates," Nix said. "And part of what explains their being stopped at higher rates is geographically where they live is historically where crime has clustered, where poverty has clustered, where opportunity isn't as great."

But the debate about what role bias might play persists. "It's much harder to parse out how much of that disparity is attributable to bias on the part of officers, whether it's explicit or implicit," Nix said.

Most of the people - 58% - shot and killed by police since 2015 were armed with guns, according to The Post's database. And 15% were armed with knives, the database shows.

Research has revealed a link between fatal police shootings and how saturated a region is with guns. Nationwide, there are more than 700,000 local law enforcement officers, and experts say there could be between 300 million and 400 million guns.

Daniel Nagin, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, examined fatal police shootings that The Post tracked between 2015 and 2018. In an article published last year, Nagin wrote that he had found "a pronounced, highly significant association between" police shootings in a state and the prevalence of guns in that state.

He calculated the rate of gun ownership in each state by studying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallies of suicides by firearm and an estimate of households where adults are thought to have guns. The higher the rate of gun ownership, the more likely it was police would encounter people "armed or suspected to be armed, which in turn results in a greater frequency of police using fatal force," he wrote. The connection was particularly pronounced in states such as Oklahoma, Alaska, New Mexico and Arizona.

"If there's more guns around, then there's going to be more encounters between police and citizens with guns," Nagin said in an interview. "And that's a deadly recipe. ... If you're in a place with more guns, you're going to be more leery about the possibility that the person is armed."

- - -

Year after year, numerous police shootings have followed two types of police-civilian encounters: reports of people in the throes of mental health crises and domestic violence.

On May 26, 2020, the day after Floyd's death, officers in Lansing, Mich., shot and killed 37-year-old Jason Gallegos. Officials said later that Gallegos had struggled with mental illness, as did nearly 1,500 other people shot and killed by police since 2015 - more than 1 in 5 people shot by officers over that period.

In Lansing, police were called to the apartment where Gallegos lived after he accidentally fired a gun, argued with his mother and grabbed her wrist, according to a review by the Michigan attorney general's office. His mother told a police negotiator that Gallegos was on medication for "many mental illnesses," according to the review.

After police coaxed him outside, Gallegos came with a shotgun and shot an officer in the leg, the review said. Six officers fired at Gallegos, killing him. The attorney general's office said the officers acted lawfully.

"There was no opportunity to use de-escalation techniques," an assistant attorney general wrote. "The officers had no choice but to fire to eliminate the threat."


In some cases, experts say, people pose undeniable, deadly threats. But in others, they said, mental health professionals could help keep tensions down - particularly when people are a threat only to themselves and the arrival of armed officers may cause an escalation.

These types of cases have fueled a push to let mental health professionals, rather than armed officers, respond to certain calls. Eugene, Ore., has had such a program for years. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have started similar efforts. Experts say these efforts - if widely adopted - could avert some shootings.

Last year, the sheriff's office in Orange County, Fla., launched a pilot program dispatching behavioral-health clinicians alongside deputies. Clinicians are "in a better position to help people who are in crisis," Sheriff John Mina said in a video announcing the program.

Domestic violence is another kind of crisis that police are often called to investigate. Since 2015, more than 1,000 people have been killed by police after calls about domestic disturbances.

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, nearly 1 in 5 fatal shootings by police followed such calls, slightly up from the previous year and the most in any single year since The Post began tracking fatal police shootings.

On May 28, 2020, with the country gripped by unrest over policing in Minneapolis and beyond, officers in Ogden, Utah, responded to a 911 call from a woman who had fled her home, saying her husband had assaulted and threatened to kill her.

Two officers in Ogden, which is north of Salt Lake City, headed to the house, along with two state probation and parole agents who happened to be in the area.

One of the officers, Nathan Lyday, spoke to the man through a glass storm door, according to an account from Weber County Attorney Christopher F. Allred. The man in the house - later identified by officials as John Coleman - was "uncooperative and confrontational," shutting the door on Lyday, the prosecutor wrote.

The 24-year-old officer, holding a notebook and pen, turned to speak to another officer and Coleman shot him in the head, Allred wrote, killing him instantly.

Lyday "had no opportunity to react," Allred concluded. The Ogden police chief said the officer was "felled by the forces of evil." Other officers returned fire, and one of them shot Coleman in the head.

Lyday was one of 48 police officers fatally shot in the line of duty in 2020, and he was among nine killed while responding to domestic-violence calls, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. Since 2000, an average of six officers have been killed per year in these circumstances, according to the group's data.

Domestic violence calls are "volatile, unpredictable" situations for police, said Jacinta Gau, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. "When officers arrive on scene ... there's so much anger."

Coleman's wife, who asked not to be identified because of the trauma, said she had endured years of emotional abuse and controlling behavior that "spiraled out of control."

On the day of the shooting, she fled their home - "bloody, my head was busted open" - and went to her former workplace to get a phone. She found out that her husband and a police officer were dead only when authorities tracked her down.

She and their children feel no anger at police for shooting Coleman, something they told the officer who fired the fatal shot. "There was no other way to deal with the situation," she said.

She said she feels only guilt about what happened that day.

"We just unleashed that on the world," she said. "It was our problem, and we were taking care of it and holding it together, and it just, it spilled over."

- - -

Hannah Fizer was driving to her overnight shift at a convenience store on June 13, 2020, when a sheriff's deputy pulled her over in Sedalia, a small city in western Missouri.

The deputy, who said she was speeding and ran a red light, stood by the window of Fizer's silver Hyundai Elantra for a few minutes. Then, as recorded on nearby surveillance video, he took aim and shot Fizer, killing the 25-year old. The deputy said Fizer had ignored his commands, claimed to have a gun and threatened to shoot him.

Fizer's killing led to no criminal charges. A special prosecutor concluded that the shooting was justified because the evidence supported the deputy's claim that he feared for his safety. But the prosecutor also said the deputy could have just backed away.

"It could've been avoided by the exercise of what I think [are] good police tactics and judgment," Stephen P. Sokoloff, the special prosecutor, said in an interview. "There are a number of these I've seen where, yeah, were they legally justified? Yes. Were they necessary? No."

Sokoloff said the deputy could have waited for the arrival of the backup he had called.

"He could've retreated. She wasn't able to go any place. . . . He could've let things simmer a little bit down," said Sokoloff, general counsel for the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services.

Sokoloff said Fizer could be heard over the deputy's radio dispatch yelling at him and was seen in video footage bending down in her car and rising back up. No gun was found in her car.

"I don't doubt for one second she was speeding," John Fizer, her father, said in an interview. "Because she was late for work a little bit. ... I don't doubt that he pulled her over for good reason. But he did everything wrong from that moment on."

Fizer's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the deputy, Jordan Schutte. An attorney for Schutte declined to comment for this story, writing in a court filing that the officer had "acted with objective reasonableness under the circumstances."

Experts contend that such cases show some shootings as preventable with de-escalation training and crisis intervention. In June, the New York City police announced plans to retrain their 36,000 officers to reduce the use of force.

But retraining police nationwide is a massive undertaking, the scale of it reflected in the patterns documented by The Post since the beginning of 2015: More than 2,600 departments were involved in the more than 6,400 fatal shootings. In more than 1,600 of these shootings, it was the only time since 2015 an officer in a department had fatally shot someone.

Ronald L. Davis, a former police chief and ex-director of the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services office, said the goal should be less use of deadly force overall, "not just unjustified uses of deadly force."

The unchanging pace of fatal shootings after high-profile police killings last year also "debunks the myth of police reform affecting officers' safety, that officers were hesitating" amid scrutiny and criticism, Davis said in an interview before President Biden nominated him in March to lead the U.S. Marshals Service.

"If you pointed your firearm because it was necessary," Davis said, "you're not going to be thinking about some lawsuit or complaints."

- - -

In Atlanta, after Rayshard Brooks was killed, the officer who shot him became one of the relatively few charged with murder for shooting someone while on duty. Prosecutors said Brooks had posed no threat to Garrett Rolfe, the officer. Attorneys for Rolfe said that the shooting was justified and that the officer had acted reasonably. The case is pending.

Rolfe was one of 16 officers charged with murder or manslaughter last year for on-duty shootings, up from 12 a year earlier, according to Stinson, the Bowling Green professor, who tracks cases of officers charged with crimes.

Prosecutors also charged more officers for these shootings after Ferguson. In 2015, the first full year after Ferguson, 18 officers were charged for shootings, the most in any year since Stinson started tracking in 2005. But conviction rates have remained largely unchanged in the years before and after Ferguson.

These criminal cases are difficult for prosecutors to win, and most officers who are charged walk free or are convicted on lesser charges, a pattern that experts attribute to the trust jurors and judges have in police, and the law remaining squarely on their side.

Legally, the use of deadly force has been guided by the Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Graham v. Connor, which said an officer's actions must be judged against what a reasonable officer would do in the same situation. Some officials have pushed to adopt a tougher standard, which California did in 2019.

"The vast majority of these shootings are justified under the current law," Stinson said.

The Washington Post

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