Andy Lopez’s death grabbed national headlines and left a community dazed and in despair, with hundreds rallying in front of the Sheriff’s headquarters in Santa Rosa on Tuesday. The uproar surrounding the tragic death of a young teen is likely what prompted the FBI to launch an investigation into the incident, a review that is very rarely afforded to police officer-involved shootings. Andy Lopez is hardly the first unsuspecting civilian to die at the hands of an officer in uniform, and given the culture of police camaraderie and the protections often furnished to law enforcement officials in use-of-force incidents, he will likely not be the last.
Police-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents are on the rise in cities all across the nation—everywhere from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Milwaukee. In some cases, the growth is striking. In Philadelphia, for example, shootings by police officers rose to the highest level in a decade in 2012, despite the decline in violent crime. It’s hard to know how to interpret the differences in data from year to year: factors like underreported data in previous years and the dearth of national data of civilian deaths by police must be considered.
But police officers who don’t hesitate to draw their guns and shoot in a pinch can be found in cities all over the U.S., as recent cases have shown. Even before Lopez’s death, the issue was in the public eye. In the frenzy of the Christopher Dorner pursuit, LAPD officers mistakenly opened fire on a truck that didn’t at all match the description of the vehicle in question.The two innocent women inside, who were carrying newspapers, were injured from the gun shots and broken glass. Last month, an unarmed man named Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death by police officers in North Carolina while he sought help after being injured in a car crash. Also in September, an unarmed mother in a vehicle on Capitol Hill was fatally shot by DC police after ramming a security checkpoint and striking a Secret Service officer with her car.
The Feds have taken notice. In Las Vegas, for example, following an investigative series on the LVPD by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Department of Justice conducted a federal civil rights probe, necessitated by “the lack of accountability” in the department. The DOJ cited inconsistent training and tactical errors amongst the 75 findings and recommendations it issued.
Groups like the Stolen Lives Project and the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), an undertaking of the National Lawyers Guild, are working to demonstrate that this “lack of accountability” isn’t unique to cities like Las Vegas. Members of the Stolen Lives project collect and document news and information about people, like Ramarley Graham from the Bronx, who they feel lost their lives to police officers’ abuse of authority and use of excessive or unwarranted deadly force. Graham, an unarmed 18 year old who was gunned down by NYPD officers who followed him into his parents’ home and shot him at close range, is one of the 21 documented people killed by the NYPD last year. The groups raise questions about underreported or overlooked cases of police brutality, and stress that police misconduct is going unchecked by the justice system.