As controversy continues to swirl around the issue of police violence in the United States, the media continues to be our main source of data about the scope of the problem.
The Washington Post, which tracks fatal shootings by police as part of its Fatal Force project, reports that there have already been 20 more fatal shootings this year compared to the same period of 2015. In April, the Post’s Fatal Force project won a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most prestigious award, in the national reporting category. The project originated when Post staff realized that no government agency tracks police violence, reported Paul Farhi:
“After covering several high-profile incidents involving the killings of civilians by police officers in 2014, Washington Post staff writer Wesley Lowery was surprised to discover that there were no official statistics about such fatalities. So Lowery pitched an idea to his editors: The newspaper, he suggested, should collect the information itself and analyze it for patterns in law enforcement.”
While the FBI does track police killings, reporting by departments remains strictly voluntary, even despite what the Guardian’s Jon Swaine described in 2015 as a long-running “debate about why the American government has failed so badly to monitor this issue of national importance.”
A total of 990 people were shot to death by police in all of 2015, according to Fatal Force, and as of Thursday afternoon, police had claimed the lives of 485 people so far this year. In both 2016 and 2015, mental illness was a known factor in about a quarter of all deaths.
Police are increasingly showing up as the first responders in emergency calls involving the mentally ill, and those encounters all too frequently turn violent or even fatal. Last July, Denver erupted in protest when police fatally shot Paul Castaway, a mentally ill Native American man, as he held a knife to his own neck in a crowded trailer park.
The issue of how officers treat the mentally ill, as well as the broader issue of police violence, is cutting more and more across party lines. In January, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, strongly criticized the state of mental health care and policing in the U.S.: