Miami Shootings Stoke Racial Tensions

Since July, the city of Miami has experienced four fatal police shootings of African-American men. While law enforcement has defended the shootings, community activists question what they say is the excessive use of lethal force. Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito says the four incidents, while unfortunate, do not represent an significant uptick in police shootings. And Carl Johnson, pastor of the city's 93rd Street Baptist Church, discusses the community response.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michelle Martin is away.

On the show today, we hear from an African-American pastor who chose to bypass the predominantly black weekend rally in Washington led by the Reverend Al Sharpton in favor of the predominantly white rally led by Fox News talk show icon Glenn Beck. That's in a few minutes.

But first, a deadly summer in Miami. In July and August, police have shot and killed four African-American men. Law enforcement officials have defended the actions, but the shootings have reinforced long-held distrust of the police in Miami's black neighborhoods. Here to talk about it, we're joined by Miguel Exposito. He's the police chief of Miami. And also with us is Carl Johnson, the pastor of that city's 93rd Street Baptist Church. Both speak to us from the studios of member station WLRN in Miami.

Welcome to the program.

Chief MIGUEL EXPOSITO (Police Chief, Miami Police Department): Thank you.

Pastor CARL JOHNSON (Pastor, 93rd Street Baptist Church): Thank you.

ALLISON KEYES: Chief, let me start with you. What's the status of the investigation into these shootings? And tell us a little about the circumstances, please.

Chief EXPOSITO: Before I get into that, there was a comment that you made beginning the show, and I think we need to set it straight. This summer has been no more violent than previous summers. I can't get into too details of the police shootings. We've had four police shootings this year, and we had one that was the result of a traffic stop. And that's the most controversial, only because the gentleman apparently was not armed at the time. The other three shootings, the subjects that were shot were all armed.

KEYES: Chief, I wonder, how do respond to the perception that these shootings are racially motivated?

Chief EXPOSITO: My response is the African-American community has asked that we go in there and take care of the crime problem, and we've done that. We started some new programs within the police department so that we could respond to their needs in the community. And as a result of that, we've had some confrontations with people that are violent, people are armed. And that's what has really created this situation. As I've mentioned in the other media, the suspect dictates the outcome of the encounter.

And if - and I'll give you, as an example: The last shooting, we had two individuals that were armed. One of them was shot by police and killed. The second individual was taken into custody, and the weapon was recovered. Why wasn't he shot? Because he did not pose a threat. At the time that the police came up to him, he dropped the weapon, and there was no threat. The other individual apparently chose another route, and as a result of that, he was shot and killed.

KEYES: Pastor, let me bring you into the conversation with a question.

Pastor JOHNSON: Most definitely.

KEYES: I am from Chicago. I've worked in New York City, and it sometimes seems that when black people are shot by police, that the African-American community often assumes it is racially motivated. Do you think, at all, that's what's happening here? Or are you hearing something different from people there?

Pastor JOHNSON: Well, your statement is correct. That's a natural response when these type of incidents take place. Therefore, when that does happen, the clergy - such as myself - needs to get involved to bring balance and peace and put a corrective action in place. And then you'll see things begin to go on and get better. You know, I've done this 10 years ago. I've seen this same behavior taking place even when we had high crime in 2000, and we also got involved in the community, and crime went down.

So now, since there's been four killings within six weeks, I mean, now there's an unrest now. There's an unsettledness now. And then there's a perception out there that the police are killing blacks now. And then the police feel that they're justified. Well, I'm not here to judge the chief. I'm not here to verify or support what the African-American community is saying. I need to come in as a clergy to bring some balance and some corrective action to try to avoid what is the perception. And that's my response to you.

KEYES: Pastor, let me ask you: Are people in the community - I mean, obviously, there's been some crime, here. Are they afraid now? And are they more afraid of the police than of the crime that's, I guess, been leading to these shootings, allegedly?

Pastor JOHNSON: I would say so, ma'am. I would say, based on me communicating with parents, and also some of the parishioners of my church, there is not only a fear, but there's also an ungratefulness about the police department. So when that takes place...

KEYES: An ungratefulness.

Pastor JOHNSON: Yeah, ungratefulness. I use that word, and I use it emphatically, because the police department, they're supposed to make sure they look after the citizens of our city. And whenever the citizens - I'm talking about the citizens, legitimate citizens who are not impetrating crime -whenever they feel uneasiness, then there's not a gratefulness about the police department. And so we ought to be grateful that we have police departments that are doing the right thing, bringing peace and bringing crime down. But when you feel there's an unsettledness and an unrest going on in a community, that gratefulness is not there.

I'm grateful that we have police departments. I'm grateful that we have good police. But when that perception is going another way, then I become concerned, and the gratefulness is not there. And I'm concerned for the community, and I'm also concerned for the cops.

KEYES: Hang on just a second, pastor. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. We're talking about a series of fatal shootings by Miami police officers. Our guests are Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito and Pastor Carl Johnson of the city's 93rd Street Baptist Church.

Chief, I wonder, some of the critics have suggested that the reasons for some of these shootings, or perhaps one of the reasons for them is that there is a department-wide attitude in these neighborhoods that's more confrontational than cooperative. Would do you think about that perception?

Chief EXPOSITO: From my perspective, the reason why we're having these shootings is because we have a small part of that community that's involved in criminal activity. They've been involved in this for several years. One of the most violent situations occurred last year, July of 2009, where we had 12 people injured by gunfire, and two people were killed in one party. There was a party, and this person opened up on the crowd with an AK-47. As a police department, you can't allow that to continue. And I'm only giving you an example. We also had other shootings. In one, seven people were injured, and two people were killed. So, you know, we have to do what we need to do from our perspective to make the citizens in that area feel safe.

It's no different than in the '80s, when you had primarily Hispanics involved in that type of activity, when we had the Cocaine Cowboys in Miami. And at that time, we also had a lot of police shootings. In this case, the people that were being killed were Hispanics, primarily.

KEYES: Pastor, in the '90s, there was a time when members of the clergy were riding along with officers in some of the communities. You've suggested doing this again. What makes you think it'll work in this environment?

Pastor JOHNSON: Well, this corrective action, I know it has to work, ma'am, because of the fact that when this unrest begin to occur, I went to the commissioner. And the chief consensually endorsed this vision. He's here today, and he's supporting the vision that, number one, pastor, I agree with you, and I want to curtail this so-called confrontation that the police is giving out in the community. I agree with your vision, Pastor Johnson. Let the pastors ride with the police, and let the parents call in to the pastors where the problems are at, and let the pastors get out of the police car and just talk. Get them saved. Get them delivered. Get them to be - to see the light.

And so look how that would help them. Instead of being killed to go - we call it a place called hell because they got crime in their hearts. If we can reach them first and then get them changed and then if they have to go through the system, through the prison system because they commit the crime, then so be it. Because that's the way the law of the land is.

KEYES: Really briefly, and let me ask you both, do you think that the ride-alongs and the cooperation between the clergy and the officer will help calm some of the tensions between police there and the African-American community. And Chief, let me ask you to answer first.

Chief EXPOSITO: I certainly believe that it will. This is all about finding solutions, and this is a solution. It's worked in the past and there's no reason to believe that it will not work now.

KEYES: Pastor Johnson?

Pastor JOHNSON: Yes, ma'am. May I strongly consent and endorse what the chief said. Based on past corrective practices, it worked in the past. We're at it again. The good thing about it is the chief is willing to endorse this plan, and the clergy is willing to work the plan. There is no question, and I emphatically say it, it will work.

KEYES: Chief, a question about the ride-alongs, if there's clergy with you when you have to go into, I mean, basically a crime scene or into harm's way, is that going to be feasible for both the officer and the clergyman involved?

Chief EXPOSITO: We have a ride-along program that involves civilian people that want to ride with us. And we obviously will do everything possible to make sure that they do not get hurt in any way. This would be no different than having one of our citizens wanting to do a ride-along.

Pastor JOHNSON: Right. And our mindset as clergy, we're not actually one who wants to go into the actual crime scene while it's going on. We want to get there before the crime scene occurs. We are looking to ride with the police to go out there to where we believe problem areas and the parents are asking us to go out and visit, and also the places that we deem needs to be corrected. So we're looking at it to become a proactive approach before it gets to become a crime scene. So we're not riding in when there's a crime scene going on. We're going in before the crime scene to curtail and stop the crime.

KEYES: Pastor, one brief question.

Pastor JOHNSON: Yes, ma'am.

KEYES: Okay, I know young people in southwest Washington, where I am, are a little - shall we say, have some problems with authority. So I'm just curious, you really think they're going to pay attention to what the pastors are saying or they're not just going to continue doing what they're doing and say so rudely?

Pastor JOHNSON: I must say, to speak for myself, and the first plan when the crime is up, many of these so-called drug dealers and the young, strong, crazy, chaotic people joined my church and joined many churches. The respect level of the clergy here is good.

KEYES: And you don't think in a climate that may be more violent, I mean because they've been playing the video games, they're more inured to violence I think now.

Pastor JOHNSON: Okay. Yeah. And my son, I have an 18-year-old son, and he shared that dynamic with me. But he also believes in his father, that even though there's more hostility going on with those videos destroying the mindset of some of our young people, he believes in the God and me and the God we serve that can deal with that dynamic.

So yes, ma'am, I still believe it can work because whatever the mindset is, whether it's more chaotic or crazy, we have a greater God to deal with that and we carry that God with us out on the street. So we got it under control, I believe so.

KEYES: Carl Johnson is pastor of the 93rd Street Baptist Church in Miami and Miguel Exposito is the police chief of Miami. They both joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you both for being here.

Pastor JOHNSON: Thank you.

Chief EXPOSITO: Thank you, Allison.

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