Crime fell in the early months of the pandemic, but fatal police shootings didn't slow

Erik Ortiz
·8 min read

Fatal shootings by police officers did not appear to ease up even amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans continue to be disproportionately affected by deadly police shootings compared to white people, a study released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union found.

Such shootings are "so routine that even during a national pandemic, with far fewer people traveling outside of their homes and police departments reducing contact with the public so as not to spread the virus, police have continued to fatally shoot people at the same rate so far in 2020 as they did in the same period from 2015 to 2019," according to the report, which was based on data analysis from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The data also showed that several states saw a rise in the rate of people fatally shot by police in 2020 over the previous five years.

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"We thought maybe police would slow down their killing of people during the pandemic," Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU's Justice Division, said. "We were wrong."

From January to June of this year, there were 511 fatal police shootings, according to the report, up from 484 during the same period in 2019. During the first six months of 2018, there were 550 fatal police shootings; in 2017, there were 493; in 2016, there were 498; and in 2015, there were 465.

Researchers examined figures from a database maintained by The Washington Post, which has been tracking deadly police shootings through news accounts, social media posts and police reports in the wake of the 2014 killing of Black teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri. The database has found that fatal police shootings remain at a constant of nearly 1,000 per year since 2015, which the Post says can be explained via a "probability theory" that suggests "the quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major societal changes, such as a fundamental shift in police culture or extreme restrictions on gun ownership."

Researchers said they wondered if a once-in-a-century public health crisis that generated increased social isolation would result in a reduction in police killings.

"We want to express alarm that even when the nation was on lockdown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic ... that didn't stop police fatally shooting people at the same rate," Ofer said. The report doesn't posit why the number of shootings remained at the same level in 2020, although Ofer added that it underscores how policing continued in those months and highlighted that not everyone had the ability to quarantine at home.

The report only examined fatal on-duty shootings and not other types of incidents in which people died during or following a police encounter.

After the United States began reporting coronavirus deaths in early March, the number of fatal shootings per week did not fall off compared to the first two months of the year. But the researchers did note that in the five weeks after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer dug his knee into Floyd's neck, fatal police shootings "dropped precipitously" from more than 25 per week to fewer than 15.

Floyd's death led to a wave of global protests against police brutality, as well as calls from activists for police reform and even the defunding or dismantling of police departments. Some states and individual departments, including in Minneapolis and New York City, announced significant changes in policing.

Despite a noticeable drop in fatal police shootings in June, the ACLU's report said it "cannot draw meaningful conclusions from data over such a brief time period" and that the numbers must continue to be tracked to "better understand if, in fact, protests, public outrage, and accompanying policy changes have reduced police shootings."

The ACLU report also identified seven states — Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Montana and Nevada — as having substantially more fatal shootings in the first six months of 2020 compared to past years.

Emily Greytak, the ACLU's director of research, said further analysis is needed to determine why. Historically, she said, there has been a lack of both comprehensive national data on police shootings and analyses of how racial bias plays into fatal police encounters.

While fatal police shootings remained relatively unchanged during the first six months of 2020, crime in general fell across major U.S. cities compared to previous years.

That decline can presumably be attributed to people staying indoors during the pandemic, said Christopher Herrmann, a former crime analyst supervisor with the New York City Police Department and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

This summer has seen a resurgence in violent crime, including shootings and murders, in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Herrmann said the typical rise of crime in the summer along with the effects of the pandemic, including job losses, are presumed factors.

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The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, studied crime data from 27 cities from January 2017 through June 2020 and found that rates of homicide, aggravated assault and gun assault began to "increase significantly in late May. Multiple factors likely explain these trends, including diminished police legitimacy in the wake of Floyd's killing."

"Of course all of these things are going to make police more cautious, less proactive, less productive," Herrmann said, adding that lower morale among officers and a "COVID effect" in which police are more hands off due to anxieties over the virus are related.

Across the country, discussions over the allocation of police funding have heated up in cities like New York, where the city council voted in June to pare down $1 billion from the budget of the nation's largest police department, and Houston, where the city council that same month rejected a proposal to move nearly $12 million from the police budget to fund sweeping police reform initiatives also favored by community advocates, who prefer more of the money goes toward improving social and public health services.

After welcoming a new class of 74 recruits to the police academy this week, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said others in the community made clear that they don't want less policing, "they want good policing."

Some cities are "making cuts without real study of the consequences," said Acevedo, who is also this year's president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents about 69 urban law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU supports the reduction of law enforcement roles and responsibilities in order to curb the number of fatal encounters. The group says the government should divest from police budgets and instead redirect the money toward social services and community programs that can help with mental illness and other issues, and put an end to police interactions for "nonserious offenses," including minor traffic stops.

Following Floyd's death, Steven Casstevens, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a nonprofit representing law enforcement leaders, said agencies in recent years have been working on reducing use of force and upholding police accountability.

Casstevens, the police chief in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, has encouraged all agencies to participate in the FBI's National Use of Force Database, which has been criticized for being incomplete and being ineffective for guiding police reform, and officers to adhere to a use of force policy that puts a value on preserving human life.

But simply defunding or shifting resources from police departments is not the answer, Casstevens added.

"Change will require both dedicated resources and an enduring commitment from police leaders, community members, and elected officials," he wrote in an open letter. "Now is not the time to further limit the capacity of police agencies."

In Houston, where the homicide rate is up 27 percent from a year ago, Acevedo said the pandemic, along with increased domestic violence, drug and mental health issues are all fueling the larger problem. Earlier this month, the city saw its 18th police-involved shooting in 2020.

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While Acevedo has won praise for marching with activists after Floyd's killing, he has also weathered criticism from some protesters pushing for more transparency in Houston.

He said Tuesday that his department has been able to reduce the number of officer-involved shootings by half in the past eight years, and that it's necessary to look at why each individual case ended in a fatality. So far in 2020, of the city's 18 shootings involving police, seven resulted in deaths, nine in injuries and in two, no one was hit.

"Critics of policing only want to focus on the number and the race, but they don't want to look at the individual circumstances," he said. "Look at the facts, look at the evidence, and then decide if prosecutors or the criminal justice system failed to hold officers accountable. Don't use a broad brush."

He added that the proliferation of officer body cameras and the spread of the public capturing video of police encounters are forcing departments to improve their training.

"We've come a long way, but the work never ends," Acevedo said.

ACLU researchers argue that even if violent crime is trending upward, that still shouldn't open the door to an increase in deadly police encounters.

"Whether crime is up or down, whether we're in a pandemic or not, police continue to kill people," Ofer said.

CORRECTION (Aug. 19, 2020, 2:55 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article mischaracterized police shootings in Houston this year. There have been 18 shootings involving officers, but not all were fatal.