In an alley in Denver, police gunned down a 17-year-old girl joyriding in a stolen car.
In the backwoods of North Carolina, police opened fire on a gun-wielding moonshiner.
And in a high-rise apartment in Birmingham, Alabama, police shot an elderly man after his son asked them to make sure he was OK; the man, Douglas Harris, 77, answered the door with a gun.
Those three are among at least 385 people shot and killed by police nationwide during the first five months of this year, more than two a day, according to a Washington Post analysis. That is more than twice the rate of fatal killings tallied by the federal government over the past decade, a count that officials concede is incomplete.
“These shootings are grossly underreported,” said Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington dedicated to improving law enforcement. “We are never going to reduce the number of police shootings if we don’t begin to accurately track this information.”
A national debate is raging about police use of deadly force, especially against minorities. To understand why and how often these shootings occur, the Washington Post is compiling a database of every fatal shooting by police in 2015, as well as of every officer killed by gunfire in the line of duty.
The Post looked exclusively at shootings, not killings by other means, such as stun guns and deaths in police custody.
Using interviews, police reports, local news accounts and other sources, the Post tracked more than a dozen details about each killing through Friday, including the victim’s race, whether the person was armed and the circumstances that led to the fatal encounter. The result is an unprecedented examination of these shootings, many of which began as minor incidents and suddenly escalated into violence.
Among the Post’s findings:
» About half the victims were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred.
» The vast majority of victims — more than 80 percent — were armed with potentially lethal objects, primarily guns, but also knives, machetes, revving vehicles and, in one case, a nail gun.
» Forty-nine people had no weapon, while the guns wielded by 13 others turned out to be toys. In all, 16 percent were either carrying a toy or were unarmed.
» The dead ranged in age from 16 to 83. Eight were children younger than 18, including Jessie Hernandez, 17, who was shot three times by Denver police officers as she and a carload of friends allegedly tried to run them down.
The Post analysis also sheds light on the situations that most commonly gave rise to fatal shootings. About half of the time, police were responding to people seeking help with domestic disturbances and other complex social situations: A homeless person behaving erratically. A boyfriend threatening violence. A son trying to kill himself.
Ninety-two victims — nearly a quarter of those killed — were identified by police or family members as mentally ill.
In Miami Gardens, Florida, Catherine Daniels called 911 when she couldn’t persuade her son, Lavall Hall, a 25-year-old black man, to come in out of the cold early one morning in February.
A diagnosed schizophrenic who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed barely 120 pounds, Hall was wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt and waving a broomstick when police arrived. They tried to stun him with a Taser gun and then shot him.
The other half of shootings involved nondomestic crimes, such as robberies, or the normally routine duties that occupy patrol officers, such as serving warrants.
Nicholas Thomas, a 23-year-old black man, was killed in March when police in Smyrna, Georgia, tried to serve him with a warrant for failing to pay $170 in felony probation fees.
Thomas fled the Goodyear tire shop where he worked as a mechanic, and police shot into his car.
Although race was a dividing line, those who died by police gunfire often had much in common. Most were poor and had a history of run-ins with law enforcement over mostly small-time crimes, sometimes because they were emotionally troubled.
Both things were true of Danny Elrod, a 39-year-old white man. Elrod had been arrested at least 16 times over the past 15 years; he was taken into protective custody twice last year because Omaha police feared that he might hurt himself.
On the day he died in February, Elrod was accused of robbing a Family Dollar store. Police said he ran when officers arrived, jumping on top of a car in a parking lot and yelling, “Shoot me, shoot me.” Elrod, who was unarmed, was shot three times as he made a “midair leap” to clear a barbed-wire fence, according to police records.
Dozens of other people also died while fleeing from police, the Post analysis shows, including a significant proportion — 20 percent — of those who were unarmed.
Running is such a provocative act that police experts say there is a name for the injury officers inflict on suspects afterward: a “foot tax.”
Police are authorized to use deadly force only when they fear for their lives or the lives of others. So far, three of the 385 fatal shootings have resulted in an officer being charged with a crime — less than 1 percent.
The low rate mirrors the findings of a Post investigation in April that found that of thousands of fatal police shootings over the past decade, only 54 had produced criminal charges.
Typically, those cases involved layers of damning evidence challenging the officer’s account. Of the cases resolved, most officers were cleared or acquitted.
In all three 2015 cases in which charges were filed, videos emerged showing the officers shooting a suspect during or after a foot chase:
» In South Carolina, Police Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, who ran after a traffic stop. Slager’s attorney declined to comment.
» In Oklahoma, a reserve deputy, Robert Bates, was charged with second-degree manslaughter 10 days after he killed Eric Harris, a 44-year-old black man. Bates’ attorney, Clark Brewster, characterized the shooting as a “legitimate accident,” noting that Bates mistakenly grabbed his gun instead of his Taser.
» In Pennsylvania, Officer Lisa Mearkle was charged with criminal homicide six weeks after she shot and killed David Kassick, a 59-year-old white man, who refused to pull over for a traffic stop.
In many other cases, police agencies have determined that the shootings were justified. But many law enforcement leaders are calling for greater scrutiny.
After nearly a year of protests against police brutality and with a White House task force report calling for reforms, a dozen current and former police chiefs and other criminal justice officials said police must begin to accept responsibility for the carnage.
They argue that a large number of the killings examined by the Post could be blamed on poor policing.
“We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable,” said Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
Police “need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences and landing on top of someone with a gun,” Davis said. “When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot.”
As a start, criminologists say the federal government should systematically analyze police shootings.
Currently, the FBI struggles to gather the most basic data. Reporting is voluntary, and since 2011, less than 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 state and local police agencies have reported fatal shootings by their officers to the FBI.
As a result, FBI records over the past decade show only about 400 police shootings a year — an average of 1.1 deaths per day.
According to the Post’s analysis, the daily death toll so far for 2015 is close to 2.6. At that pace, police will have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people by the end of the year.
“We have to understand the phenomena behind these fatal encounters,” Bueermann said. “There is a compelling social need for this (understanding), but a lack of political will to make it happen.”
For the vast majority of departments, a fatal shooting is a rare event. Only 306 agencies have recorded one so far this year, and most had only one, the Post analysis shows.
However, 19 departments were involved in at least three fatal shootings, including Omaha. Los Angeles police lead the nation with eight. The latest occurred May 5, when Brendon Glenn, a 29-year-old homeless black man, was shot after an altercation outside a Venice bar.
Oklahoma City police have killed four people, including an 83-year-old white man wielding a machete.
“We want to do the most we can to keep from taking someone’s life, even under the worst circumstances,” said Oklahoma City Police Chief William Citty. “There are just going to be some shootings that are unavoidable.”
In Bakersfield, California, all three of the department’s killings occurred in a span of 10 days in March. The most recent involved Adrian Hernandez, a 22-year-old Hispanic man accused of raping his roommate, dousing her with flammable liquid and setting fire to their home.
After a manhunt, police cornered Hernandez, who jumped out of his car holding a BB gun. Police opened fire, and some Bakersfield residents say they are glad the officers did.
“I’m relieved he can’t come back here, to be honest with you,” said Brian Haver, who lives next door to the house Hernandez torched. “If he came out holding a gun, what were they supposed to do?”
Although law enforcement officials say many shootings are preventable, that is not always true. In dozens of cases, officers rushed into volatile situations and saved lives. Examples of police heroism abound.
In Tempe, Arizona, police rescued a 25-year-old woman who had been stabbed and tied up and was screaming for help.
Her boyfriend, Matthew Metz, a 26-year-old white man, also stabbed an officer before he was shot and killed, according to police records.
In San Antonio, a patrol officer heard gunshots and rushed to the parking lot of Dad’s Karaoke bar to find a man shooting into the crowd.
Richard Castilleja, a 29-year-old Latino, had hit two men and was still unloading his weapon when he was shot and killed, according to police records.
And in Los Angeles County, a Hawthorne police officer working overtime was credited with saving the life of a 12-year-old boy after a frantic woman in a gray Mercedes pulled alongside the officer and said a white Cadillac was following her and her son.
Seconds later, the Cadillac roared up. Robert Washington, a 37-year-old black man, jumped out and began shooting into the woman’s car.
“He had two revolvers and started shooting both of them with no words spoken. He shot and killed the mom, and then he started shooting at the kid,” said Eddie Aguirre, a Los Angeles County homicide detective investigating the case.
“The deputy got out of his patrol car and started shooting,” Aguirre said. “He saved the boy’s life.”
In about half the shootings, police were responding to nondomestic criminal situations, with robberies and traffic infractions ranking among the most common offenses. Nearly half of blacks and other minorities were killed in such circumstances. So were about a third of whites.
In North Carolina, a police officer searching for clues in a hit-and-run case approached a mobile home owned by Lester Brown, a 58-year-old white man. On the front porch, the officer spotted an illegal liquor still.
He called for backup, and drug agents soon arrived with a search warrant.
Officers knocked on the door and asked Brown to secure his dog. Instead, Brown dashed upstairs and grabbed a Soviet SKS rifle, according to police reports.
Neighbor Joe Guffey told a local TV reporter that he was sitting at home with his dogs when the shooting started: “Pow, pow, pow, pow.” Brown was hit seven times and pronounced dead at the scene.
While Brown allegedly stood his ground, many others involved in criminal activity chose to flee when confronted by police.
Kassick, killed in Pennsylvania, for example, attracted Mearkle’s attention because he had expired vehicle inspection stickers. On the day he died, Kassick was on felony probation for drunken driving and had drugs in his system, police and autopsy reports show.
After failing to pull over, Kassick drove to his sister’s house in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, jumped out of the car and ran. Mearkle repeatedly struck Kassick with a stun gun and then shot him twice in the back while he was face-down in the snow.
“They think they can outrun the officers. They don’t realize how dangerous it is,” said Samuel Lee Reid, executive director of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which investigates police shootings and recently launched a “Don’t Run” campaign.”The panic sets in,” and “all they can think is that they don’t want to get caught and go back to jail.”
Nine killed in Nebraska in past 17 months
People killed by law enforcement officers in Nebraska in 2014 through May 2015:
May 20, 2015: Marcus Wheeler, 26
He was shot and killed by Omaha Police Sgt. Jeffrey Kopietz after Wheeler opened fired on officers near 30th Street and Martin Avenue. Police were attempting to apprehend Wheeler, who was accused in a 2014 shooting. During the incident, a bullet from Wheeler’s gun killed Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco, 29. Officers had encountered Wheeler on foot, and he fired several shots at them. Wheeler then ran toward a house, and an Omaha police sergeant and two officers, including Orozco, confronted Wheeler in the backyard of the house. Wheeler and the officers then exchanged shots. Wheeler ran to the rear of another house, where officers found him on the ground.
April 19, 2015: Dana Hlavinka, 44
He was shot and killed in Sidney, Nebraska, after a 911 call to a house in Sidney. The officers saw a woman running away from the house. They entered the house and confronted Hlavinka, the woman’s husband, who was armed with a knife.
March 5, 2015: Tyson Hubbard, 34
He was shot at a Motel 6 at 6501 N. 28th St. in Lincoln. Hubbard, an Omahan who was being sought on a warrant for second-degree assault, left the motel and was confronted by officers as he got into a vehicle. He struggled, resisted arrest and was shot.
Feb. 23, 2015: Danny Elrod, 39
He was shot in the back twice by Omaha Police Officer Alvin Lugod. Officers were trying to apprehend Elrod, who was suspected of robbing Family Dollar at 1725 S. 13th St. Officers repeatedly told Elrod to show his hands and get on the ground. He refused. He reached into his waistband several times. Lugod warned Elrod that he was “going to get shot.” He continued to ignore officers’ commands and at one point yelled that he had a gun. Elrod, who was standing on the hood of a car, turned away from Lugod and toward other officers. He put his hands on the barbed wire atop a chain-link fence, jumped and was shot.
Jan. 27, 2015: Tiffany Terry, 39
She was shot outside her home near 50th and Hickory Streets after she threw a knife at Omaha Police Officers Emilio Luna and Matthew Digilio. Both officers fired their weapons and hit Terry. Police had been called a home after a report of an assault in progress. Five officers were met by a man who said he and Terry’s 18-year-old daughter had been assaulted by Terry. Luna knocked on the front door. Seconds later, Terry burst through the doorway screaming expletives. She had three knives with her, one raised above her head. After she lunged at Luna, officers shouted, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife now!” at least eight times. When Terry threw one of the knives at Luna, police shot her.
Aug. 26, 2014: Cortez Washington, 32; Bryce Dion, 38
Washington was shot during a robbery at Wendy’s at 4308 Dodge St. Dion, an employee of the TV show “Cops,” also was unintentionally shot and killed by an Omaha police officer. Washington had fired what later was determined to be a pellet gun at Officers Darren Cunningham and Brooks Riley. The two officers, along with Officer Jason Wilhelm, returned fire.
June 7, 2014: John Tilley, 48
He was shot by Bellevue police officers after a series of events that began with complaints of loud noise at 3629 Emiline St. in the early morning hours of a Saturday. Officers went to his residence and gave Tilley a warning about the noise. Shortly afterward, Tilley left the residence, got into a pickup truck and struck several parked police cruisers and other vehicles. He then left the roadway, hitting fences and driving through multiple residential yards. Bellevue Police Officers James Murray and Zach Stalder fired their weapons into the truck, striking and killing Tilley.
March 19, 2014: Willie D. Michalak, 30
He was shot at 2212 S. 11th St. by officers serving an arrest warrant. Omaha Police Officers Emilio Saldierna, 33, and Stephen Kult, 35, fired their weapons, as did two deputy U.S. marshals and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. Wanted on nine felony warrants, Michalak had told others he would not be arrested alive. Omaha police said he refused officers’ commands to get out of the car and began spinning his tires while trying to get away near 11th and Dorcas Streets. Cursing, he threatened to shoot the officers. When he made a move for his waistband, the officers opened fire.