The police response to insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 and killed a police officer contrasts sharply with recent examples of police violence against Black people. A new investigative report from NPR reveals troubling patterns in fatal police shootings of unarmed Black people—including a glaring lack of accountability that keeps violent officers on the streets.
Police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide since 2015, an NPR investigation found. At least 75% of the officers were white, and nearly 60% of the shootings occurred in the South.
NPR reviewed job applications, personnel records, use of force reports, citizen complaints, court records, lawsuits, news releases, witness statements, and local and state police investigative reports to examine the backgrounds of the officers and analyze details of each shooting. Reporters also interviewed experts, police, lawyers, prosecutors, and relatives of victims.
The findings reveal a disturbingly widespread indifference to criminal, unethical, and violent conduct by police officers.
At least six of the officers who shot and killed unarmed Black people were hired as police officers despite serious red flags in their backgrounds, like drug use, domestic violence, and being fired from another police department.
Several officers kept their jobs after they were convicted of crimes including battery and obstructing justice and several remained on the job after violating department policies and being cited for ethics violations.
More than two dozen stayed on the street even though they accumulated citizen complaints or were involved in use of force incidents. NPR found an officer in Fort Lauderdale who had 82 reviews for use of force incidents but was never found to be in violation.
Police officials told NPR that some departments are so desperate to bring on new officers, they’re willing to ignore red flags in a recruit’s background. And once hired, police unions can make it nearly impossible to remove an officer from the force, including those who engage in repeated shootings.
Even officers who kill are rarely held accountable.
In 33 of the fatal shootings investigated by NPR, the officers were fired or resigned, but at least three got their jobs back and five went to work for other law enforcement agencies.
It’s rare for any officer to be involved in a shooting. In fact, experts told NPR, many police officers go their entire careers without ever pulling their guns.
But at least 15 of the officers who killed unarmed Black people had been involved in more than one shooting.
NPR found that authorities failed to charge officers in more than 80 cases. Only 13 were charged with murder, and of those, only two were found guilty. Of seven officers charged with manslaughter, two were found guilty.
Prosecuting police officers who gun down unarmed Black men and women is difficult because juries tend to give cops the benefit of the doubt, experts said. In contrast, Black victims are presumed dangerous.
Former U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., Ronald C. Machen Jr. told NPR that it will continue to be challenging to hold officers accountable in court until there are more people of color in the justice system.
“This is why you need Black prosecutors and Blacks on juries—to hold people accountable,” Mr. Machen said. “For police officers to have the credibility to do their jobs, they have to be held accountable.”