Nearly a thousand times this year, an American police officer has shot and killed a civilian.
When the people hired to protect their communities end up killing someone, they can be called heroes or criminals — a judgment that has never come more quickly or searingly than in this era of viral video, body cameras and dash cams. A single bullet fired at the adrenaline-charged apex of a chase can end a life, wreck a career, spark a riot, spike racial tensions and alter the politics of the nation.
In a year-long study, The Washington Post found that the kind of incidents that have ignited protests in many U.S. communities — most often, white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings. Meanwhile, The Post found that the great majority of people who died at the hands of the police fit at least one of three categories: they were wielding weapons, they were suicidal or mentally troubled, or they ran when officers told them to halt.
The Post sought to compile a record of every fatal police shooting in the nation in 2015, something no government agency had done. The project began after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, provoking several nights of fiery riots, weeks of protests and a national reckoning with the nexus of race, crime and police use of force.
Race remains the most volatile flash point in any accounting of…