Fatal Police Shootings Of Unarmed Black People Reveal Troubling Patterns
Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black people nationwide. The majority of officers were white, and for at least 15 of them, the shootings weren't their first or last.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Police shot a Black man in Killeen, Texas, earlier this month, and there's something we'd like you to pay attention to in this case, an important detail. The man killed, Patrick Lynn Warren, was unarmed when he was fatally shot by an officer. NPR has identified the shooting deaths of 135 Black men and women by police over the past five years. Cheryl W. Thompson of NPR's Investigations Unit reviewed thousands of pages of police investigative reports, personnel records, court records and other documents that shed a light on the cases and the officers involved. And Cheryl joins me now. Thanks for being here.
CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel. Good morning. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: What were some of your key findings?
THOMPSON: Rachel, I found that for at least 15 officers, this was not their first or their last shooting. Some had been involved in anywhere from two to five shootings over the course of their careers, often deadly and without consequences. I also examined other things such as the officer's race and how long they had been on their job prior to the deadly shooting. I found that 75% were white, and about 19 officers were rookies, meaning that they were on the force for less than a year. One cop actually was on the job for four hours before he killed someone and another for four days. And a couple of other patterns emerged, too, Rachel. About 25% of the killings happened during traffic stops. And nearly 20% of the victims suffered from mental health issues. I also discovered that some of the officers had troubled pasts, including drug use and domestic violence. At least one had been fired from another law enforcement agency, and two others had been forced out.
MARTIN: I would like to pick up on something you said just at the top of that answer, that 15 officers were involved in more than one shooting. How does that happen?
THOMPSON: It happens, Rachel, when officers are allowed to stay on the force after even one shooting and stay on the street. Look. It's no secret that police officers have a dangerous job, but being involved in a deadly shooting is unusual. I spoke with Peter Scharf. He's a criminology professor at Louisiana State University and studies use of force among police officers.
PETER SCHARF: It's rare for police officers involved in any shooting. You know, the vast number of police officers are never involved in a fatal use of deadly force.
THOMPSON: But I found in one case a Detroit officer involved in five shootings, two were on duty and three were off duty. And each time, he was exonerated, including his last shooting in 2017, when he fatally shot an unarmed 19-year-old who crashed a car into a building and ran. After that shooting, Rachel, one of the first people that officer called was his union steward.
MARTIN: The union steward. So making some connections here, does that help explain why it's hard to hold these officers accountable?
THOMPSON: It does help explain that. That's one of the reasons police rarely lose their jobs. Those union contracts often shield them from accountability. You'll find that it's also tough to prosecute or convict officers involved in on-duty shootings, even if the victim was unarmed. I talked to Philip Stinson, a former police officer who's a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He says that police officers often aren't convicted because of judges and juries who give them the benefit of the doubt.
PHILIP STINSON: Courts are very reluctant to second-guess the split-second decisions of police officers in potentially violent street encounters that might be life-or-death situations. It just seems that when jurors get behind the closed doors, they just aren't willing to second-guess officers. They somehow seem to take everything that's been presented in the trial and disregard the legal standards.
THOMPSON: That's exactly what happened in numerous cases I examined, Rachel. And in some, it never gets that far. In San Bernardino County, Calif., the district attorney refused to charge a sheriff's deputy in two separate shootings of unarmed men in three years. That cop remains on the force, though the victim's family sued and was awarded 33 1/2 million dollars. It's one of the largest payouts for police shooting in the country. I also found officers who probably should never have been hired at all.
MARTIN: What do you mean? Was there something in their background that was some kind of red flag?
THOMPSON: Indeed. I found one man in a small town in Georgia who was rejected by a police department because he didn't respond truthfully to several questions during a truth verification exam. But then he went 8 miles down the road to another small town and was hired. And he was hired even after admitting on his background questionnaire of being involved in domestic violence, an assault, selling or buying drugs. And there were other red flags. And within a few months after he was hired, there were complaints about threatening behavior by him and racial profiling of Black residents. And 11 months into the job, he shot and killed an unarmed Black man. He was charged with manslaughter but was found not guilty. Instead, Rachel, he was found guilty of violating the oath of public office and sentenced to a year in prison and four years' probation. He was released last May after serving seven months.
MARTIN: Cheryl W. Thompson of NPR's investigations team. Cheryl, we appreciate your reporting and your work on this subject. Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.