Final tally: US police shot and killed 984 people in 2015

By Sandhya Somashekhar, Steven Rich

Protesters block an intersection in Chicago in response to the release of police video showing a white officer shooting a black teenager 16 times. Photo / AP
Protesters block an intersection in Chicago in response to the release of police video showing a white officer shooting a black teenager 16 times. Photo / AP

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, Las Vegas police cornered Keith Childress Jr., who was wanted for a number of violent felonies. They opened fire on the 23-year-old after he refused to drop the object in his hands, which turned out not to be a gun but a cellphone.

And with that, the nation logged what is likely its final police shooting death of 2015, a year that saw 984 such killings, well more than double the average number reported annually by the FBI over the past decade.

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The shooting is the final one to be counted as part of The Washington Post's year-long project tracking on-duty police killings by firearm, an issue that has taken on new urgency in the wake of a number of high-profile killings of unarmed African American men. The Post sought to document every shooting death at the hands of police in 2015, revealing troubling patterns in the circumstances that lead to such shootings and the characteristics of the victims.

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The project will continue this year. Embarrassed federal officials have announced plans to improve their data collection, but the new initiative will not be in place until 2017. Already, The Post has tallied five fatal police shootings in 2016.

Over the past year, The Post found that the vast majority of those shot and killed by police were armed and half of them were white. Still, police killed blacks at three times the rate of whites when adjusted for the population where these shootings occurred. And although unarmed black men represent 6 percent of the U.S. population, they made up nearly 40 percent of those who were killed while unarmed.

People upset by a decision not to indict two white police officers in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice protest outside the Cleveland prosecutor's house. Photo / AP
People upset by a decision not to indict two white police officers in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice protest outside the Cleveland prosecutor's house. Photo / AP



Regardless of race, about a quarter of those killed displayed signs of mental illness. December was the fourth-deadliest month in 2015 for police shootings, with 88 shootings. There was only one state without a fatal police shooting last year: Rhode Island.

The number of shooting deaths may yet rise for 2015: The Post is tracking a few cases where it's unclear whether police gunfire killed someone or whether the person committed suicide. And new cases that have gone unreported could always emerges.

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Childress' death in many ways encapsulates the complex nature of these incidents. On one hand, the young man was unarmed, carrying nothing but a cellphone. At the same time, he had a history that suggested a capacity for violence, and he behaved suspiciously, ignoring officers' commands for a full two minutes and advancing even as the officers threatened to shoot.

And like an increasing number of police interactions with citizens, the incident was partially captured on a camera worn by one of the police officers.

Two weeks before his death, Las Vegas police said, Childress failed to show up for a sentencing hearing in Phoenix. In December, a jury had convicted him of a litany of charges, including kidnapping and robbery in connection with a 2013 home invasion in which he and several others posed as bounty hunters and robbed a house at gunpoint.

Community activist Lamon Reccord protests against gun violence in Chicago. Photo / AP
Community activist Lamon Reccord protests against gun violence in Chicago. Photo / AP

"Based on the fact that Childress was facing a lengthy stay in prison, it appears he skipped the sentencing and fled to Las Vegas to avoid prison time," Undersheriff Kevin McMahill of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department told reporters during a briefing this week.

Childress was staying with close friends in Las Vegas when the U.S. Marshals Service became aware of his location, McMahill said. But when the marshals attempted to approach him, he fled, prompting the federal agents to seek help from local police.

While communicating with local police, however, the marshals conveyed incorrect information - that Childress was wanted for attempted murder, McMahill said.

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About 2 p.m. local time on New Year's Eve, two Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers - Robert Bohanon, 37, and Blake Walford, 27 - arrived at the scene. Footage from Bohanon's body-worn camera shows the officers pulling into a residential neighborhood and happening upon Childress as he slowly crossed the street in dark clothing. The right side of his body was obscured from view.

Bohanon drew his gun immediately, aiming the weapon at Childress even as he pulled over his car and called for the man to put up his hands and surrender. The footage, a section of which was released publicly by the department this week, offers a partial view of what transpired. Over the course of about two minutes, Childress ignored 24 commands by the officers, McMahill said, all the while obscuring his right hand.

Protesters march to demand the prosecution of police involved in the shooting death of a black man in Minneapolis. Photo / AP
Protesters march to demand the prosecution of police involved in the shooting death of a black man in Minneapolis. Photo / AP

At some point, Bohanon remarks that there is "something" in Childress's hand. Later, he concludes it is a gun. Toward the end of the exchange, Bohanon screams at Childress not to "advance" on the officers. "Do not walk towards us," Bohanon commands.

Just before the publicly available portion of the footage cuts out, Childress' figure can be seen briefly in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, apparently walking toward the officers. It is then, McMahill said, that the officers opened fire, striking Childress five times.

He was pronounced dead at the scene. The object in his hand was later discovered to be a cellphone.

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The shooting was the 16th for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department but the first in more than two years involving an unarmed suspect, McMahill said. Eleven of the shootings last year were fatal. The department's policy is for officers to turn on their body cameras before every interaction with civilians, he said, but for reasons still under investigation, Walford did not turn his on.

Bohanon, a sergeant, has been with the force since 1997, and Walford has been with the department since 2014, police said. Both officers are on routine paid administrative leave pending completion of the investigation.

Chicago officers take a man into custody during a protest over the release of a police video showing a white officer shooting a black teenager 16 times. Photo / AP
Chicago officers take a man into custody during a protest over the release of a police video showing a white officer shooting a black teenager 16 times. Photo / AP

In the news briefing, McMahill speculated that Childress might have been attempting to commit "suicide by cop."

"An individual that's being challenged by armed police officers and continues to walk toward them . . . certainly leads you to believe that he absconded from Arizona to come to Las Vegas and he potentially just didn't want to face the music for the charges down in Arizona," McMahill said.

Childress' death has provoked outrage from his friends and family, who believe vehemently that he should not have been killed.

"They just gunned him down," said his mother, Jacqueline Lawrence, 45, a bank employee in Phoenix. "They said he had a gun, but he had a cellphone in his hand."

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The family is preparing to file a wrongful-death lawsuit, said Dale K. Galipo, the family's attorney.

"Someone shot with a cellphone in his hand, I just don't find that to be a justified shooting," Galipo said.

Childress - a father of three who went by the childhood nickname Oompa - was taking college courses in business, Lawrence said. He had a passion for the outdoors, she added, and loved such activities as snowboarding and skydiving. He also had a generous streak.

"He was the type of person that his friends would go, 'That's a nice watch,' and guess what he would do? He would give it away," his mother said.

Photos on Childress' Facebook page show a handsome if flashy young man with close-cropped black hair and copious tattoos, including a skyline on his chest and a vibrant rose on his right arm. Many of his friends have replaced their profile pictures with snaps of Childress, inscribed with the words, "Justice For Keith Childress."

- Washington Post

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