Fewer fatal police shootings are recorded by the federal government every year, despite renewed scrutiny of police use of force and millions of dollars spent encouraging local law enforcement to report the data.
Even though federal records indicate that fatal shootings by police have been declining nationwide since 2015, The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database shows the opposite: Officers have shot and killed more people every year, reaching a record high in 2021 with 1,047 deaths. The FBI database contains only about one third of the 7,000 fatal police shootings during this time — down from half when the newspaper started tracking.
Fatal shootings by officers in at least 2,250 police and sheriffs’ departments are missing from the past seven years of federal records, finds an analysis of the Post database, which began tracking killings in 2015. The excluded data has created a misleading government picture of police use of force, complicating efforts at accountability.
The incomplete data obscures a racial discrepancy among those killed by police that is larger than the federal data suggest. Black people are fatally shot by police far more often than is evident in the FBI data, at more than double the rate for white people.
Among the missing data: shootings by officers in 440 departments whose governments received nearly $90 million in federal grants to track and report crime data; and shootings from another 700 departments required by local laws to report the killings to state authorities, but no higher.
In at least 34 states, laws require police to report crime data to the state. Most of the laws are vague about whether police shootings must be included, offering minimal accountability at the state or local level. In California, for example, only half of departments’ fatal police shootings appear in the FBI data.
Boston was among the larger departments with missing data: The Post documented 11 fatal shootings by its officers since 2015, but none is recorded in the FBI’s records. The Chicago Police Department reported six officer-involved shootings, but The Post logged 45. Police in Boise, Id., fatally shot 12 people, whose deaths were not recorded in the FBI database.
“This shows that the data from the FBI, the FBI database, has largely failed,” said Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a University of Maryland professor who has testified about police reform.
That some departments have received federal dollars while their shootings are unreported, he said, “speaks to how flawed the system currently is, not just the organizational structure of policing, but also the way that government funding operates.”