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

A protester demonstrates against the death of Keith Scott in front of police in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.
Brian Blanco
Getty Images
A protester demonstrates against the death of Keith Scott in front of police in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.