Policing Since Ferguson: What's Changed?

Apr 1, 2018
Originally published on April 10, 2018 2:17 pm
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Shootings of black men by the police are once again in the news with protests this weekend in Sacramento over the March 18 death of Stephon Clark and the release on Friday of disturbing new videos of the 2016 shooting by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Joining us to talk about these two cases - and what they tell us about the state of American policing - is NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste. Hi, Martin.


COLEMAN: So let's start with Sacramento. Stephon Clark was killed by two police officers in the darkened yard of a family home two weeks ago today. On Friday, lawyers for the family released results from a private independent autopsy. And that said Clark was struck by eight bullets, nearly all of them in the back. Martin, how does this compare with what Sacramento police said earlier? And could the autopsy results lead to the officers facing criminal charges.

KASTE: Well, the department said that Stephon Clark was seen moving toward the officers when they shot him. Now here's - this autopsy says he was shot in the back. Now that sounds very bad. But really, you have to wait for a lot more details here. People who've looked at similar cases tell me that, you know, bodies spin around when they're shot. There's also the fact that Clark was falling to the ground as he was subjected to this barrage of gunfire.

So the fact that he was shot in the back is not necessarily inconsistent with his position when the whole thing started. That said, the real effect of this autopsy is to keep this case in the public eye. These official investigations of police shootings take a long time. And it doesn't hurt the fact that the man who did the autopsy is something of a celebrity.

COLEMAN: So tell us about him, Martin.

KASTE: Yeah, he's the closest thing that you could have to a celebrity in the world of medical examiners. His name is Dr. Bennet Omalu. You may have heard him in the context of him telling the NFL that they had a problem with traumatic brain injuries in players. They even made a movie about him, starring Will Smith. So...

COLEMAN: Will Smith.

KASTE: Yeah, when the lawyers bring him in and he's something of a celebrity already, that helps to keep this autopsy front and center. And the media, of course, remark on that.

COLEMAN: Separately, we heard on Friday about a police officer who was fired in connection with the fatal police shooting in Baton Rouge nearly two years ago of Alton Sterling. We also learned something about the officer's temper. Martin, can you explain this?

KASTE: Yes, for the first time now, we're finally seeing a couple of body camera videos from the two officers who were in that situation. And these videos show an officer, one officer in particular - his name is Blane Salamoni - being very aggressive, using foul language, being physically aggressive towards Alton Sterling right off the bat as soon as they make contact. And, of course, it escalates very quickly.


BLANE SALAMONI: Put your hands on the car or I'm going to shoot you in your [expletive] head. You understand me?

ALTON STERLING: Come on, man.

KASTE: And that keys into what the department did this past week, which is firing him in part for what they called lack of command of temper, escalating things in a way that made resistance more likely. So I think right there, you see already a department responding to this new sense that officers need to be a little more cognizant of whether they're escalating things or not.

COLEMAN: White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that the shooting in Sacramento of Stephon Clark was something that needed to be left up to local officials. But Black Lives Matter activists around the country say police shootings are a national issue going back years. Has there been progress in training police to avoid shootings?

KASTE: I mean, this is a national concern. But the actions we take are almost always local. There's local control of police departments. There are almost 18,000 police agencies in this country. And how much money to spend on training, what you tell your officers about escalation or de-escalation, that kind of thing - those tend to be local decisions.

We can't really say there's been a national trend in one direction or another. I think if you look at the number of people killed by officers, that's remained steady over the last few years. But if you live in one city or another, you might see a difference.

COLEMAN: NPR's Martin Kaste, thank you very much.

KASTE: My pleasure.

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