Police Reform Is Happening, But It's Hard To Track

Sep 22, 2016
Originally published on September 22, 2016 6:52 pm

The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American man, by Charlotte, N.C., police is under investigation and the circumstances are very much in dispute, but when you listen to protesters, you hear that their frustration isn't about just this one case.

"I can't watch another black man getting shot on another Facebook page, another newscast. I can't keep watching it happen and nobody else doing nothing about it," says Shahidah Whiteside.

A lot of people feel this sense of frustration, that two years after Ferguson, we're still seeing videos of questionable police shootings — like the aerial view of the shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., last Friday.

But the truth is you really can't judge the pace of police reform based on videos or even media attention. You could direct the question to an expert, says David Klinger at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Does he think police have changed how they use deadly force?

"Unfortunately, we don't know, and the reason we don't know is we don't have a sound count of the number of times police officers discharge their firearms," Klinger says.

After Ferguson, it became apparent that the official government count of the number of people killed by police was low; it was off by about 50 percent. So journalists started counting. The Washington Post counted 990 people shot dead last year, a quarter of them black. This year is on about the same pace. But Klinger says we need more details about every instance of deadly force, even when no one dies.

"I think there is nothing more important for the government to track than the numbers of times that government agents try to kill people," Klinger says.

In the absence of decent statistics, you're left with anecdotal evidence. Michael Nila, founder of a reform-oriented police training company called Blue Courage, says as he travels the country, he is seeing change in some places.

"Clearly the high-profile agencies ... the ones that have experienced challenges and are under scrutiny, they clearly have a deep motivation to do this and to make change," Nila says.

But there are practical limits to how fast a willingness to reform can translate into concrete change. Nila says there are so many new kinds of training being pushed now — community policing, implicit bias, de-escalation — that some departments are caught in scheduling gridlock, trying to get it all done while still keeping enough cops on the beat. He says people may say it's been two years since Ferguson, but changing ingrained habits is hard.

"So while two years may seem like an eternity, when these situations are still continuing today, in the life of muscle memory and retraining heart-set and mindset, that's a blink of an eye," he says.

And when it comes to the use of deadly force and the complaint that American police are too quick to shoot, Nila says there's a simple fact here that's often overlooked: Police today are less hands-on than they used to be. When he was on patrol a generation ago, he says, cops were quicker to mix it up.

"We were willing to take a punch; we were willing to even get cut," he says. "[Even with] the things that have happened to me in a fight on the street, [it] never entered my mind to shoot somebody."

In the decades since then, the training has shifted toward a more cautious, standoffish approach — more use of commands shouted from a distance, Tasers and finally guns. Nila says the greater emphasis on self-preservation is understandable, but if Americans want police to show more restraint with deadly force, then we need to be honest about the fact that we're also asking them to take more risks.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Two recent police shootings in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., have led to protests and more scrutiny of law enforcement. In Tulsa today prosecutors announced first degree manslaughter charges for the officer who killed Terrence Crutcher. And in Charlotte, the North Carolina National Guard is assembling in response to two nights of violence after the police shooting of Keith Scott. Both men were African-American.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Incidents like those have been a recurring part of the news, especially in the two years since the protests in Ferguson. And that raises this question. Has greater scrutiny changed police behavior? NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte police is still being investigated, and the circumstances are very much in dispute. But when you listen to protesters, you hear that this isn't about just this one case.

SHAHIDAH WHITESIDE: I can't watch another black man get shot on another Facebook page, another newscast. I can't keep watching it happen. And not nobody else is doing nothing about it.

KASTE: That was Shahidah Whiteside on Tuesday night. A lot of people feel this sense of frustration that two years after Ferguson, we're still seeing videos of questionable police shootings...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That looks like a bad dude, too - could be on something.

KASTE: ...Like the aerial view of the shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa last Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three-twenty-one, we have shots fired. We have one suspect down.

KASTE: Crutcher raised his hands before he was shot, and today prosecutors there say they're filing first degree manslaughter charges against the officer. But the truth is you can't judge the pace of police reform based on videos or even media attention. You could ask an expert, say, David Klinger at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Does he think police have changed how they use force?

DAVID KLINGER: Unfortunately we don't know, and the reason we don't know is we don't have a sound count of the number of times police officers discharged their firearms.

KASTE: After Ferguson, it became apparent that the official government count of the number of people killed by the police was low. It was off by about 50 percent. So journalists started counting. The Washington Post counted 990 people shot dead last year, a quarter of them black. This year is on about the same pace. But Klinger says we need more details about every instance of deadly force, even when no one dies.

KLINGER: I think there is nothing more important for the government to track than the numbers of times that government agents try to kill people.

KASTE: In the absence of decent statistics, you're left with anecdotal evidence. Michael Nila is the founder of a reform oriented police training company called Blue Courage, and as he travels the country, he says he is seeing some change in some places.

MICHAEL NILA: Clearly the high-profile agencies, clearly the ones that have experienced a challenges and are - you know, are under scrutiny - they clearly have a deep motivation to do this and to make change.

KASTE: Nila says there are so many new kinds of training being pushed now - there is community policing; there's implicit bias, de-escalation - that some departments are caught in scheduling gridlock trying to get it all done while still keeping enough cops out on the beat. He says people may say it's been two years since Ferguson, but changing ingrained habits is hard.

NILA: So while two years may seem like an eternity when these situations are still continuing today, in the life of muscle memory and retraining heartset and mindset, that's a blink of an eye.

KASTE: And when it comes to the use of deadly force and the complaint that American police are too quick to shoot, Nila says there's a simple fact here that's often overlooked. Police today are less hands-on than they used to be. He says a generation ago when he was on patrol, cops were quicker to mix it up.

NILA: We were willing to take a punch. We were willing to even get cut. I mean I'd been cut, you know, stuck with hypodermic - I mean the things that, you know, that have happened to me in a fight on the street and never enter my mind to shoot somebody.

KASTE: in the decades since then the training has shifted toward a more cautious, standoffish approach - more use of command shouted from a distance, Tasers and finally guns. Nila says this greater emphasis on self-preservation is understandable, but if Americans want police to show more restraint with deadly force, then we need to be honest about the fact that we're also asking them to take more risks. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.