by Special Topic:
The unseen toll of nonfatal police shootings
Untallied nationally, the shootings leave those who survive with injuries, emotional trauma and legal fallout.
This story appeared in The Washington Post on October 21, 2022.
The way Kenneth Gilbert Jr. and his father tell the story, it had been a busy morning running errands in east Atlanta when their pickup was suddenly cut off by a dark truck and forced onto the curb.
Once Gilbert Sr. got back on the road, he said, the truck swerved back into their lane. Gilbert Sr. said he hit the gas and sped around it, making a sweeping motion with his hand as he shouted at the driver to “move over.”
Gilbert Sr. said that as he slowed for the next stoplight, he saw the truck catching up — and a gun pointing at him from its passenger window. He yelled for his son to get down as a bullet shattered one of their rear windows and struck Gilbert Sr. in the head.
Gilbert Jr. then grabbed his gun, which he legally owned, from the floorboard of the pickup and returned fire. He, too, was shot in the head.
Both survived. And both insist they had no idea that the man shooting at them was an Atlanta police officer riding in an unmarked SWAT vehicle. The department would later say that Officer Scott Oliver, who was unharmed, opened fire only after seeing the younger Gilbert load and point a gun. The officer said he ordered Gilbert Jr. to drop it.
After an initial burst of media attention, the March 13, 2019, shootings quickly faded from the headlines.
Although The Washington Post has documented nearly 1,000 fatal police shootings nationwide every year, there is no comprehensive data on incidents in which officers shoot and wound someone.
That has made it difficult not only to know how often this happens, but also to hold departments and officers accountable.
“That kind of information is necessary to develop strategies to reduce officer-involved shootings,” said Chuck Wexler, who runs the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, adding that nonfatal police shootings deserve just as much scrutiny as fatal ones. “What matters is it was a shooting, whether they died or not. The real question is, what can we learn from that?”
To help fill this gap, The Post and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program filed public records requests for information about nonfatal shootings from every department with five or more deadly police shootings from 2015 through 2020.
Analysis of data obtained from 156 departments found that in addition to the 2,137 people killed in fatal shootings, officers in those departments shot and wounded 1,609 more.
In other words, for every five people shot and killed by police in these departments, four others were shot and survived.
This is the unseen reality of police use of deadly force in the United States: a hidden population whose circumstances largely echo those in fatal shootings but who survive to grapple with a lifetime of debilitating wounds, emotional trauma and legal fallout.
Because The Post examined incidents only in the deadliest departments, the tally of those wounded by police is undoubtedly far higher.
In some cities, woundings heavily outnumbered fatal shootings. The New York Police Department had 87 nonfatal shootings compared with 43 fatal ones. In Chicago, police wounded 63 people and killed 38. The Atlanta Police Department, one of whose officers shot the Gilberts, had the largest disparity of any department examined, wounding three times as many people as it killed: 40 nonfatal police shootings since 2015, compared with 13 fatal shootings in that period.
America stands out in comparison with other nations for its prevalence of guns. Police are trained to anticipate that anyone they encounter may have a gun and pose a threat. Experts note that officers are trained to shoot when they perceive a serious, imminent threat to themselves or someone else — and to shoot at “center mass” until that threat subsides.
Police in New York and Atlantadeclined to comment.
The Chicago Police Department said in a statement that it has updated its use-of-force policies in recent years to “prioritize the sanctity of human life” and that it regularly reviews officers’ use of force to recommend policy and training changes. “The Chicago Police Department is committed to treating all individuals fairly and respectfully.”
The Post data revealed that these incidents also can pose a threat to police: Officers were shot in about 7 percent of all fatal and nonfatal shootings examined.
The information that departments provided to The Post about their nonfatal shootings varied.
Some shared case notes, including demographic and narrative information, while others provided just a raw number of shootings — complicating efforts to conduct a thorough analysis.
In cases where detailed information was available, the circumstances in which people were wounded by police gunfire largely paralleled those in fatal shootings at the same departments: Nearly all of those shot and wounded were men, and many struggled with addiction, homelessness and poverty. At least 1 in 5 were experiencing mental health crises, and police said most were armed with guns when the shootings occurred.
The racial disparity in nonfatal shootings, however, was more pronounced than in fatal shootings across the departments studied: Black residents accounted for 16 percent of the combined population policed by these departments, but they represented 30 percent of those fatally shot by police and 41 percent of those shot and wounded. Officers in The Post’s sample shot nearly the exact number of Black people (1,109) as they did White people (1,111) — although these communities have nearly three times as many combined White residents as they do Black ones.
Jim Pasco, the longtime executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the largest union representing rank-and-file officers across the country, said that officers are not to blame for racial disparities in police use of force, although racial bias on the part of some individual officers may contribute to the overrepresentation of Black people who are shot and wounded by police in The Post’s data.
“Police officers are deployed where the crime is, and crime is usually a lot more likely to occur in poor communities, underserved communities, and underrepresented communities, and so that’s where they are, and those communities, sadly, tend to be people of color,” Pasco said.
“What we’ve got to talk about is why that neighborhood is the way it is, and why Black people are stuck there without economic opportunity, good education or anything else.”
Phillip Atiba Goff, who leads Yale University’s African American studies department and is one of the nation’s foremost policing-data experts, said the racial disparities documented by The Post across the 156 departments align with research conducted by his Center for Policing Equity.
Goff said that because police prioritize drug- and poverty-based crimes in communities of color, they are more likely to encounter and use force against Black people — no matter the suspected offense. “We’ve chosen a set of things to criminalize, we’ve chosen a group of people to have constant police interactions, and those folks are the same folks who have historically been our most vulnerable,” he said.
The Post’s analysis of shootings at the 156 departments also found that Black people shot by police more often survived (46 percent) than White people (34 percent). Policing experts said that whether someone survives a police shooting often depends on a combination of variables — how many bullets strike the person and where on the body, how quickly medical aid is rendered, and luck.