These are the names we remember. They grabbed headlines, became hashtags, and were chanted at protests. But for every person shot and killed by the police, a VICE News investigation has found, another person survives and must live with the consequences. These people are often forgotten in the debate over police violence.
By examining records of more than 4,000 officer-involved shootings — including both fatal and nonfatal incidents — from the 50 largest local police departments, we found that shootings of unarmed citizens are far more common than anyone realized. We also found that police shoot black and Hispanic people at a higher rate than people of other ethnicities, even though they are less likely to be armed in these incidents.
Many of the people wounded in police shootings end up facing charges themselves. Some spend time in jail while still recovering from their injuries, which can be severe. We spoke to four survivors of police shootings about how being shot upended their lives.
Kelvion Walker, then 19, had no clue his friend was driving a stolen car. When the cops pulled them over, his friend jumped out and fled, but Walker stayed put in the passenger seat. Even though Walker and witnesses said he had his hands up, Officer Amy Wilburn ran up and fired a single round through the driver’s-side door, hitting him in the abdomen.
The bullet tore through Walker’s stomach and intestines, nearly killing him. The projectile is still lodged in his body, and he suffers from lingering pain and flashbacks. Once a star high school athlete, he has lost mobility and no longer plays sports.
“It was like starting all over as a baby,” Walker said of his recovery. “I was still in the hospital and it was like I had to learn how to walk all over again.”
After the shooting, Wilburn was fired and charged with aggravated assault by a public servant. Walker has filed a lawsuit against Wilburn, seeking $10 million in damages. More than four years after the shooting, Wilburn still hasn’t gone to trial; the civil case also remains pending.
“I really am an innocent man,” Walker said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t found with anything — no drugs in my system, nothing. I had my hands up. I did everything I was supposed to do. And I had to suffer. Like, my whole life has been altered.”
Pittsburgh police pulled over Leon Ford, then 19, for a traffic violation. Even though he had no warrants on record, his name was similar to another man who was wanted for gang-related activities. Ford waited for more than 20 minutes while officers searched for his information.
At one point, an officer attempted to pull Ford out of the vehicle. At this point, officers said, Ford tried to drive away, but Ford says that during the struggle the car was knocked into gear and started pulling away. That’s when an officer shot Ford five times in the chest. Ford was charged with aggravated assault but was eventually acquitted. He later filed a lawsuit against the officers involved. In October this year, a jury cleared one of the officers of assault and battery claims but was deadlocked over excessive force charges against the officer who shot Ford.
Ford is now studying criminal justice at Duquesne University and has spoken out publicly against police violence.
“I live this issue; it’s become my life,” Ford said. “Every day I wake up and I’m reminded of what happened to me. I have to use my voice.”
DeAnthony Cunningham, then 16, and a friend drove into a gas station in the Atlanta suburbs just after midnight, after spending the night joyriding. A nearby Fulton County police officer spotted the pair and, thinking they matched the description of suspects involved in an earlier incident, ran the car’s plates. It turned out to have been stolen months earlier, so he approached the car with his gun drawn, court documents show. A struggle ensued — and as the officer tried to handcuff Cunningham’s friend, who swung at the officer, Cunningham made a break for the nearby woods.
Two other cops soon found him. One drew his gun, forced Cunningham to the ground, and, seconds later, pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through Cunningham’s hand and hit the back of his head.
When she learned what had happened, Cunningham’s mother, Felice, rushed to the hospital. A doctor told her that DeAnthony had less than a 5 percent chance of survival and advised her to “release him,” she recalled. “I’m like, ‘No. That’s my only child… That is the one that I brought into the world.’”
At least a dozen surgeries and years of therapy later, Cunningham is still alive. Felice now cares for him and homeschools him full-time; now 22 years old, Cunningham is close to earning his high school diploma. A district court ruled that the police officer, who maintains that the shooting was an accident, acted reasonably — it was dark, the cop didn’t know if Cunningham was armed or had tried to hit the first officer, and he had only a matter of seconds to make a decision. The police department later settled with Cunningham’s family for $2 million.
The bullet remains lodged in Cunningham’s brain.
An Olympia grocery store employee called 911 on Andre Thompson, then 24, and his brother Bryson Chaplin, then 21, after she said they attempted to shoplift a case of beer. A local police officer told prosecutors that he’d found the brothers on a nearby street and that Thompson grabbed him while Chaplin came toward him with a skateboard raised over his head. The cop opened fire.
Chaplin got back up and came at him with the skateboard again, the officer testified, leading him to shoot Chaplin until he was “no longer a threat.” The officer also shot Thompson, he said, because Thompson tried to take his gun. Witnesses later testified that they’d heard several shots and commands to stop or get down.
Thompson says the officer’s version of events isn’t true: Neither he nor his brother, he said, ever tried to attack the officer — instead, the cop just pulled up in his squad car and started shooting at them.
Both brothers were ultimately convicted on assault charges related to the shooting and the attempted theft, while the Olympia Police Department and local prosecutors cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. The verdict sparked protests: In the courthouse, supporters of the brothers sang, “They’re not guilty, we know who’s guilty.”
Thompson spent 40 days in jail earlier this year. Chaplin, paralyzed from the waist down since the shooting, is still serving his 10-and-a-half-month sentence. And for the brothers’ family members, Chaplin’s injuries and incarceration are an everyday reminder of the shooting.
“I want to wake up from this nightmare,” Crystal Chaplin, the brothers’ mother, said. “I wake up, like, ‘Where’s my son?’ He’s still incarcerated, being held hostage, and we still can’t move on with our lives.”
Rob Arthur, Taylor Dolven, Keegan Hamilton, Allison McCann,
and Carter Sherman reported and wrote this story.
Kathleen Caulderwood produced the videos.
Morgan Conley, Josh Marcus, and Diamond Naga Siu contributed research and reporting. Adam Arthur and Dylan Sandifer contributed research.
Illustrations by Xia Gordon. Design by Leslie Xia. Graphics by Allison McCann.
Read more about how we collected and analyzed the data.