PLEASE READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE FOR GRAPHICS AND FIGURES
Story by Amy Brittain
Stopped in his patrol cruiser, Trooper Trevor Casper searched for a gray Toyota Corolla on a busy stretch of Highway 41. Behind the wheel was Steven Timothy Snyder, a bank robber and killer on the run. When Casper spotted Snyder about 5:30 p.m., he eased his cruiser into southbound traffic, following the Corolla at a distance, keeping his lights and siren off.
About this story: To identify trends among fatal shootings by police, The Post studied whether the individuals killed were unarmed or armed with weapons and reviewed the actions they took in the immediate moments before police shot them. The Post has compiled a database of all fatal shootings nationwide by officers in the line of duty in 2015.
But Snyder soon realized he was being followed. Outside the Pick ’n Save grocery store, he abruptly turned his car around. He raised his semiautomatic pistol and opened fire, striking Casper in the neck.
Snyder and Casper jumped out of their cars while they were still rolling. The 21-year-old trooper, armed with a .40-caliber Glock, and the 38-year-old bank robber circled the cruiser, guns blazing. Casper fired 12 rounds; Snyder got off nine armor-piercing bullets, one of which penetrated Casper’s ballistic vest. And when it was over, Snyder lay dying of a gunshot wound to his back.
“Bad guy is down,” a dispatcher reported.
Casper collapsed and then dropped his gun. March 24 was his first solo day on the job — and his last. Shot three times, he became the youngest law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Wisconsin history. Casper is among 31 officers this year who have been shot to death by perpetrators, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. He was hailed as a hero for stopping Snyder, who had magazines of ammunition tucked in his socks and left a manifesto promising “to go down fighting hard.”
Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Trevor Casper was killed in the line of duty on March 24 in Fond du Lac, Wis. He was the youngest law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Wisconsin history.
Snyder’s killing, as documented in interviews and police reports, is among the 800 fatal shootings by police so far this year. As the tally continues to grow, so does public debate and criticism over police use of deadly force.
But only a small number of the shootings — roughly 5 percent — occurred under the kind of circumstances that raise doubt and draw public outcry, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The vast majority of individuals shot and killed by police officers were, like Snyder, armed with guns and killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making other direct threats.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said The Post’s findings confirm what police officers already know.
“We know that anecdotally, because typically that’s why police officers choose to use deadly force,” said Pasco, whose organization includes 335,000 officers nationwide. “These are circumstances where their lives or the lives of citizens around them are in imminent danger.”
In 74 percent of all fatal police shootings, the individuals had already fired shots, brandished a gun or attacked a person with a weapon or their bare hands, according to an analysis of actions immediately preceding the shootings, which draws on reports from law enforcement agencies and local media coverage. These 595 cases include fatal shootings that followed a wide range of violent crimes, including shootouts, stabbings, hostage situations, carjackings and assaults.
Another 16 percent of the shootings came after incidents that did not involve firearms or active attacks but featured other potentially dangerous threats. These shootings were most commonly of individuals who brandished knives and refused to drop them.
The 5 percent of cases that are often second-guessed include individuals who police said failed to follow their orders, made sudden movements or were accidentally shot. In another 4 percent of cases, The Post was unable to determine the circumstances of the shootings because of limited information or ongoing investigations.
Much of the public outcry about police use of deadly force began in August 2014 when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, after a struggle in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Of the 800 people killed by police this year, almost half have been white, a quarter have been black and one-sixth have been Hispanic.
Most fatal police shootings prompted by an attackIn three-fourths of fatal shootings by police this year, officers were defending themselves or others from attack or threat of gun violence. Here's what happened immediately before the fatal shots by police.
Gun threats included pointing, brandishing or holding a gun. Other attacks include those with weapons besides guns or with or physical force. By law, deadly force is justified if the officer reasonably believed at the moment that someone was in imminent danger.
Source: Washington Post data
The Post is tracking all fatal shootings by police while on duty in 2015. Recently, the FBI and the U.S. attorney general acknowledged weaknesses in their own counting of fatal shootings by police and announced plans to more thoroughly collect data.
To identify trends among the shootings, The Post studied whether the individuals were unarmed or armed with weapons and reviewed the actions they took in the immediate moments before police shot and killed them.
Of the 595 cases in which a person fired a gun, brandished a gun or attacked an officer or individual with a weapon or bare hands:
First day solo on the jobWith a population of 43,000, Fond du Lac is about halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay. Here, there were no protests and no moments of second-guessing after Casper’s decision to shoot and kill Snyder.
Elementary school children mailed stacks of hand-drawn cards to the troopers, and boxes of free pizzas were delivered to their post. Supporters tied ribbons to a local bridge and shone blue lights at night to honor Casper’s sacrifice.
“There are so many people who have 30-year careers and never have this happen to them,” said Clarissa Justmann, a trooper who responded to help Casper. “Trevor was on the job, by himself, for one day. And you just sit there, and you just wonder how this happened.”
Casper grew up in the rural Wisconsin community of Kiel, population 3,747. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall, with an average build, blue eyes and light blond hair. He wrestled and played soccer and was a big brother to his younger sisters, Olivia and Lauren.
After high school, he studied criminal justice at Lakeshore Technical College. Casper appeared in a promotional video in 2014 to talk about the school’s program. In the piece, he conducted mock field-sobriety tests, wrestled down a perpetrator and hosed off a fellow officer with water after he was pepper-sprayed.
The interviewer asked him about the risks he might face in this line of work: “Are you ever worried?”
Casper paused and smiled. He admitted he had been a little nervous.
“I know that when I go out there, I’m always looking around, I’m always safe,” he said. “It could happen, but I think it’s kind of . . . I don’t know how to say it . . . but going out and helping people and putting a positive impact on people’s lives, I think it would be worth it.”
Kevin Casper, 52, remembers the day in June 2014 that his son found out he had made it into the cadet class of the Wisconsin State Patrol. He came out of the house — nearly flying — into the back yard to share the news. They jumped and yelled and hugged each other.
In 2014, Trevor Casper was interviewed about the risks involved in law enforcement. At the time, he was studying criminal justice at Lakeshore Technical College.
In December, he graduated in the top half of his cadet class. Because of his good grades, Casper got his top choice for his first post: Fond du Lac, just 45 minutes from his home town.
Trooper Trevor Casper poses with his younger sisters Olivia, left, and Lauren after his graduation ceremony from the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy in December. (Courtesy of the Casper Family)
He spent his first 14 weeks on the job with field training officers. He would then get the chance to ride solo for the first time.
The family traveled down to Fond du Lac to visit with Trevor the weekend before the big day. Late that Friday afternoon, Kevin gave Trevor a haircut in his apartment kitchen. He asked him if he was nervous.
Trevor spun around in his chair to face his father. “I’m not nervous at all,” he told him. “I can’t wait. This is what I want to do.”
The family took Trevor to dinner at Friar Tuck’s, a local restaurant. He ordered a half-pound burger and fries. They visited afterward at his apartment and then headed home.
A few days later, on Tuesday, March 24, Casper was scheduled to start his shift at 3 p.m. When he went to get into his patrol car outside his apartment, the battery was dead.
Justmann, then 23, lived a few doors down, so she stopped by to jump-start his car. Justmann had been on the force just a year herself. The two had become quick buddies, part of a self-described “wolf pack” of new troopers who forged a friendship over trivia nights.
The two chatted about Casper’s first day. She told him not to do anything too “dramatic.” Just make some easy stops, as they call them, for loud exhaust mufflers or for dark-tinted windows. She would be out there, too, and she would stay nearby just in case he needed her.
Casper hit the road.