Facts Matter

Police shootings decline when the federal government gets involved

A Vice deep-dive into data on police-involved shootings at America's largest police departments showed that shootings declined by an average of 29% when the federal government got involved. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rolling back Obama-era rules that increased federal oversight of local police departments, arguing it's not the government's place to step in.

Reproduced from Vice; Data: Police shooting analysis from Vice, and per capita rates calculated from Census Bureau population estimates for each city. Full data; Chart: Axios Visuals

Key takeaway: Whether departments willingly adopted reforms recommended by the DOJ or were compelled by a binding agreement (as demonstrated in the charts), federal intervention has led to fewer police-involved shootings across major departments by 25–35%, according to Vice's analysis.

The facts

  • One element of federal intervention under the Obama administration was probing local departments and publishing public reports on officers' behavior. In January, the DOJ released a report detailing that Chicago police officers were "poorly trained and quick to use excessive and even deadly force without facing consequences," the Chicago Tribune reports.
  • Two months after that report was published, Sessions made a speech announcing his intent to "pull back" federal probes of local police departments. That promise came to fruition in September, with the Justice Department announcing it would direct the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services away from federal probes and limit its purview to providing technical assistance to local police, leaving investigations to the civil rights arm of the Justice Dept.
  • "This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support," Sessions said.
  • In August, the Trump administration also rolled back a ban on limiting the amount of surplus military equipment that went to local police.

What's next

  • The DOJ has pulled back federal investigations of local police, but continues to provide technical assistance, including, per a department official: Analyzing crime data Assisting in the development of a crime reduction plan Engaging local partners to reduce crime and increase public safety Providing successful recruiting, hiring, and retention strategies
  • What to watch: Whether discontinuing federal investigations of local departments will lead to an increase in shootings.

Go deeper: A Washington Post investigative report revealed that the number of people shot by police has remained relatively consistent over the past three years.