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Videos Make Everyone A Witness To Police Shootings

A woman holds a cellphone up to a police officer as an attempt is made to calm the crowd after an arrest is made following the sniper shooting in Dallas on Thursday.
Laura Buckman
AFP/Getty Images
A woman holds a cellphone up to a police officer as an attempt is made to calm the crowd after an arrest is made following the sniper shooting in Dallas on Thursday.

It may seem like there are a lot more cases of people being shot and killed by police.

Just this week, two African-American men were shot by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. Before that there were Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Laquan McDonald in Chicago and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

But could it be that we are just paying more attention?

Protests in Ferguson and around the country and the Black Lives Matter movement have sharpened focus on police shootings. But Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, thinks what made us pay attention the most was technology: all those cellphone videos.

"I don't think anybody would pay attention to all the advocates and all the protests but for the videos," he says. "A dead man can't talk. It used to be that the police owned the narrative, and now we've got another side to the story, quite often, with the videos."

The number of police shootings has stayed pretty constant from year to year, Stinson says. "Our best estimate is that about 1,000 times a year, a police officer, somewhere in the United States, shoots and kills somebody. And so far this year, we're right on track for that number." Stinson's estimate is based on data he has collected since 2005.

Stinson helped the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage last year of fatal shootings by U.S. police, keep count. The Post says the numbers are up somewhat this year, from 465 in the first six months of last year to 491 for the same period this year.

Outside of investigations like the Post's and Stinson's, there are no reliable data on deadly force at the national level. The FBI has efforts underway to make its data collection more reliable.

"People who live in urban communities have always known that this goes on and it goes on fairly regularly," Stinson says. "The problem is nobody else was paying attention until just the last few years, and I think we reached a tipping point right around the time that Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. [in August 2014], and since then, everybody's paying attention."

Cellphone videos make everyone a witness to a shooting. David Klinger, criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says more attention can be a positive thing but that police shootings are complex events; there's more evidence than just one video.

"It might look like a 'bad shooting' from one angle because you can't see what's in the suspect's hands," Klinger says. "But then from another angle, it clearly shows the suspect has a firearm in their hand."

Klinger has personal perspective. Before he was a professor, he was a police officer. One day, while on duty about 35 years ago, he shot and killed a man who was attacking his partner with a butcher knife. It's one reason he studies police shootings now.

Klinger thinks there's one more reason police shootings get more attention today: the public's sinking faith in government. Police are often that first place where people interact with government and, Klinger says, "When people are protesting in Chicago, in Minneapolis, it's not just 'We want these officers held accountable.' It's 'We want the chief fired. We want the mayor to resign. We want the governor to resign.' And so the protest is not merely about what the police are doing; it's about how everybody up and down that chain of command is doing."

Government officials are paying more attention. After a police officer shot and killed Sterling in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, the video was played over and over in the media and on social media. The Justice Department then did something unusual: It moved quickly to take over the case and open its own investigation.

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Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.