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'Washington Post' Tracks More Than 500 Police Shootings In 2016


This is a special edition of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are spending the entire hour talking about the tragic events of this week - the police shootings of two black men in two separate incidents at the beginning of the week and the killing of five police officers at a rally protesting, those killings at the end of the week.

Today in Poland, President Obama urged people to come together but also to look at tough topics like racial bias and criminal justice.


BARACK OBAMA: And the fact that we're aware of it may increase some anxiety right now, and hurt and anger, but it's been said sunshine's the best disinfectant. By seeing it, by people feeling a sense of urgency about it, by the larger American community realizing that, gosh, maybe this is a problem - and we've seen even some very conservative commentators begin to acknowledge this is something maybe we need to work on. That promises the possibility of actually getting it done.

MARTIN: Kimbriell Kelly is part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at The Washington Post that has been reporting on fatal police shootings over the last two years. I asked her what the team has discovered.

KIMBRIELL KELLY: The Post started collecting its own information after Ferguson. And we found out and heard that there were not accurate statistics about police officer-involved shootings. And when we looked at those numbers for the first year, which was in 2015, we found that there was a disparity in the counting at the federal level. We had nearly twice as many officer-involved shootings as anyone else. And so, really, we have continued that count now in the second year to try to get a more accurate portrayal of officer-involved fatal shootings.

MARTIN: Tell me what you're finding. What does the data show?

KELLY: The data shows, in 2015, that there were nearly 1,000 officer-involved fatal shootings. And so we had about 990. If you compare that to today, there's a slight uptick. And we just took a six-month look. So as of the last six months, we had 491 officer-involved fatal shootings. So you do see an increase in civilians who are shot and killed by officers who are on-duty.

MARTIN: What are some of the trends that we see? For example, many - race is obviously often an element here. Are black people more likely to be shot by the police than white people are?

KELLY: The answer is yes. If you look at the rate, blacks were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by officers than whites. And in 2016, half of the victims were white and half were minorities.

MARTIN: We've also seen, though, a number of cases of law enforcement officers being killed this year - two that have also gotten a lot of attention. Is that part of your reporting as well? Are there any trends there that you can tell us about?

KELLY: There are definitely trends there. We focus most of our reporting on civilians, but if you do take a look at the statistics, they are very telling. Largely, over time, year to year, you have seen a decrease in the number of officers who have been killed in the line of duty, particularly as it relates to firearms.

But there is an uptick that has occurred in the last couple of years. And if you look at the data that's by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, as of July this year, there were 26 firearm-related officer deaths. And that's a 44 percent increase from the 18 deaths that occurred last year.

MARTIN: Why is it that a news organization like The Washington Post seems to have more complete record keeping than the government does? Do you know why?

KELLY: It's not very clear why there is a disparity. But the government has acknowledged that one does exist and that they're in the process of making changes to get more accurate and thorough reporting of those numbers.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - and, Kimbriell, thanks so much for speaking with us at a very busy time - you will hear people in many communities say this has been an issue for a while and nobody cared. Do you have a theory about why this has now become an issue of national concern?

KELLY: From what I hear, and what I think we're seeing on social media, you know, our telephones play a large role in this with the video. A lot of people are recording this. So cases that people may not have known about that were happening in Dallas, or Baton Rouge, or in St. Paul, Minn., you can now log on to Facebook and see these incidents unfold. And I think that is a new trend that you see.

In 2015, we found that there were 70 shootings that were actually captured on officer body cameras. Just in the first six months of 2016, we have found that there have been 63 shootings that have been captured on officer body cameras. And so we're almost at the same numbers from last year. And when you actually look at the whole universe of cameras in general, both body-worn and cell phone cameras by civilians, there's a 38 percent increase in 2016 of fatal officer-involved shootings that have been captured by both civilians and police on cameras.

MARTIN: So you think it's the fact that people can see this unfold?

KELLY: I think that that's definitely one component of it. People are definitely more aware.

MARTIN: Kimbriell Kelly is part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at The Washington Post that has been reporting on fatal police shootings since 2015. She was kind enough to join us from the newsroom of The Washington Post. Kimbriell, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KELLY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.