Fatal Shooting Rocks NYPD, Ignites Race Debate Investigators in New York continue to probe into the shooting death of police officer Omar Edwards by fellow officer Andrew Dunton last week. Edwards, an African-American who was off-duty at the time, was pursuing a suspected car thief when Dunton, who is white, fired fatal shots at Edwards. Now, officials want to determine who was at fault, and whether race played a role.
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Fatal Shooting Rocks NYPD, Ignites Race Debate

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Fatal Shooting Rocks NYPD, Ignites Race Debate

Fatal Shooting Rocks NYPD, Ignites Race Debate

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a story about our changing America, the latest winner of this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee has just been crowned. And we cannot help but notice she is continuing a trend. She is the eighth American of South Asian heritage to claim the title. We're going to speak with the man who started it all in just a few minutes.

But first, a very different story about how differences might lead to tragic results. Now we've all heard about the brotherhood of blue, the fraternity of police who are sworn to protect the public and each other. But now another tragic incident has some wondering whether skin color still interferes with that bond of protection. New York City police officer Omar Edwards was shot three times and killed by another officer last week. Edwards, an African-American, was off-duty and in civilian clothes at the time, chasing a suspected car thief. A group of three fellow officers working in an unmarked patrol car spotted and confronted Edwards.

What happened next, whether Edwards or the officers properly identified themselves, whether the officers fired too soon, is all now under investigation. But what is clear is that officer Andrew Dunton, who is white, fatally shot and killed Edwards who is black. Although the New York Times reports that New York City has fewer fatal police shootings per officer than any other large department in the country, this is not the first time that a black officer has been killed by a white fellow officer. So, we want to ask, why does this continue to happen? Can anything be done to stop even one more such incident from happening again?

We've called to talk about this, three men who know whereof they speak. They are Anthony Miranda, chairman of the National Latino Officers Association. He's a veteran of the New York City Police Department, where he worked for more than two decades rising to the rank of sergeant. He took part in a press conference this weekend where leaders of Minority Officers Association talked about the incident. Also with us is New York State Senator, Eric Adams. He is a 22-year veteran of the New York Police Department and the co-founder of 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care. That's a group comprised of law enforcement personnel and their supporters. Also with us, Jon Shane, an assistant professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has retired from the New York Police Department after 20 years as a captain. I welcome all of you. And I thank you all for joining us.

Professor JON SHANE (Assistant Professor, Law Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration): Thank you. How is it going Tony?

Mr. ANTHONY MIRANDA (Chairman, National Latino Officer's Association): Good, thank you, thanks for being here.

Senator ERIC ADAMS (Democrat, New York State): Hello, Michel. Good morning.

MARTIN: Hello. And I don't know whether it's relevant but I want to disclose that I come from a police family. Six members of my family have - my extended family have been members of the NYPD at some point. So I don't know whether that's relevant but I think it's - I thought I would mention it. And I wanted to ask each of you, since you've all been in uniform, what went through your mind when you first heard about the shooting, Mr. Miranda?

Mr. MIRANDA: Again, it's another tragedy. And we need to classify this properly. I would have said that it's unfortunate that we're here again and still the system hasn't changed. And the rules and regulations haven't changed enough to protect this, to protect minority officers from - these type of things from happening. And we shouldn't be - he would be classified as an officer, a plain clothes officer taking action. And if you viewed him in that regard, Omar is a plain clothes officer taking police action. Now we need to justify why the other officer took the actions he did.

MARTIN: And Mr. Adams, Senator Adams, what went through your mind?

Sen. ADAMS: I concur. And I think that many of us officers of color, and I'm sure Tony would agree, that have ever taken action while off duty or in plain clothes, we know when the sirens coming. We - first things come to our mind, you know, I hope these guys don't make a mistake. And…

MARTIN: Is that true? Is that what went through your mind when you were in uniform?

Sen. ADAMS: All the time. You know, when I was in plain clothes that's the first thing that goes through your mind. You know, you're thinking, you know, are these guys going to make a mistake? Do they know that I'm a police officer? And I think Tony hit it on the head. We can fix this problem but in order to do so we have to be honest with the problem and realize that race plays a role in how we interact everyday. And that doesn't mean a person is racist. It just means we live in a society where we have racial and ethnic predispositions and we need to train people according to that and not be ashamed of that.

MARTIN: And Senator Adams, and I don't want to forget Jon Shane, because I do want to hear from him on the first question I asked. But what I'm hearing in both you and Mr. Miranda is a sense that you don't like the way that this incident is currently being described. What is it that's bothering you? Are you feeling that there is somehow not a recognition, that officer Edwards was in fact acting in the course of his job or you feel - what is that you're reacting to?

Sen. ADAMS: Well, two things trouble me greatly. Number one, you cannot train police officers in unrealistic or an ideal. We got to train them with real. And what I mean is, to state that when an officer is approached by an officer and he is told to freeze, don't move, when in fact your adrenaline is running, everyone turns around to see who is yelling at them. That's not realistic and that's not realistic training. If anything, it's just a band-aid and you're setting up that officer who is being confronted to be always the person who made the wrong decision. Everyone turns around when someone calls their name. Everyone turns around and look who is yelling towards them. That's a humanistic behavior and we need to train people based on that behavior.

MARTIN: Is it your view that the department isn't taking these kinds of incidents seriously enough…

Sen. ADAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: …as a matter of training?

Sen. ADAMS: Yes it is. The police department, particularly the New York City Police Department that drives the engine of policing across the globe, when they are serious about an issue, they put all of their energy behind the issue. They're basically taking the posture, in my belief that, well, these are not of lot of issues. When, in fact, the shootings are the ones we hear about. You hear countless number of officers who were either stopped, some of them were arrested. Some of them were suspended from duty on how they were treated. So there are countless number of near misses that never makes the papers and the trial room are filled with cases of officers who have confrontation situations.

So we're not being serious about this issue enough to find a solution. And that was part of my conversation with Commissioner Kelly(ph) - yesterday.

MARTIN: Jon Shane, can we hear from you? First of all, I want to ask, what went through your mind when you heard about this incident?

Prof. SHANE: My first reaction was that this has got be a single most devastating thing to happen to any police officer in the line of duty. And as I went beyond that I thought, how did this police officer comport with policy, both of them actually? And I have not seen the New York City's policy on this but I know that police departments across the country have confrontation policies. And to Mr. Adams and Mr. Miranda's credit, what we're going to have to see is better training in this realm. The fact that they have a policy in place is extremely important. How they train for that policy and toward these eventual outcomes is going to be extremely important as we go forward.

MARTIN: Do out think race played a role on this, Professor Shane?

Prof. SHANE: I think it's a hasty generalization and I'll tell you why. Just as Mr. Adams said, there are far too few incidents to make that generalization. I would say that it's clearly something that has to be examined. And from a research perspective, controlling for race and age and gender and those sorts of things is extremely important. Those are demographic variables that are always looked at. And I would also say that it's - I put the challenge out there to the New York City Police Department. I'd love to take a look at that for them. But having said that, I think there are far too few incidents probably nationwide, let alone just in one police department that would make any sort of statistical analysis meaningful, but the answer is yes…

MARTIN: Okay but can you - you do think race should be thought about or it should be addressed. But I'm just wondering, can you think of any circumstance, any incident in which a white undercover officer was shot or a white plain clothes officer was shot by a black officer?

Prof. SHANE: I cannot, off the top of my head, no.

MARTIN: Can anyone else?

Sen. ADAMS: No and this - here's the point here that I think we're missing. The incidents like this, clock time are seconds. Clock time - when you look at the clock on the wall it happens in seconds. But mind time is a lifetime. The mind processes information not in seconds but nanoseconds or even probably smaller denominations. So when I approach someone, I'm bringing with me everything in my life, everything that I've been taught, all of my personal experiences. We're not training to that, we're training to the clock seconds and not the mind time which is a vast number of time. And so it's more than just the shootings that is impacting race, it is also, you sit in your radio car everyday, 125th Street, which is a predominantly black area.

All day long you're hearing those who committed crimes, male black, male black, male Hispanic, male black, male black. By the time you get out of that car to take action on that three-second incident you have already spent the entire year, the entire day, the entire lifetime of what your opinion is of a criminal, male black. Now you see him with a gun. That gun pushes you into all that lifetime experience that you've taken action, not on that three seconds but your lifetime experience and we're not training to that.

MARTIN: Mr. Miranda, can I ask you this, when Senator Adams said that when he -that officers of color, when they hear the siren and they're in the course of doing their job when they're in plain clothes, think, okay I hope they realize I'm not one of the bad guys. But what I'm hearing Professor Shane say - who is not of color - you're thinking, God I hope I don't make a mistake. And I want to ask you, when you hear that siren which side of the equation are you on? Are you switching? Are you going back and forth? God I hope I don't make a mistake, gosh I hope the guys realize I'm on the right side?

Mr. MIRANDA: Well as an officer, you - the first thing you say is make sure that they don't make the wrong decision and I think it's a combination of both. But let's not minimize this. This shooting absolutely had to do with race and anybody say contrary, that race didn't play a major role in this is wrong. It was a male black. It could have been a male black from any other law enforcement agency and we have a number of law enforcement agencies out there that have people of color on them.

The process somebody is making that judgment and pulling that trigger, again, poor tactics cannot be justification for taking somebody's life. And too often we justify a shooting based on an officer's inability to take the proper police tactics. And they expose themselves and because they put themselves in the situation they say, oh, well it's okay that he shot somebody. In this case, if he had not been a police officer they would have been screaming about his background and showing a police history of wrongdoing. And unfortunately when we police officers get into those confrontations, they don't have the luxury of looking to the person's background and seeing if there's an extensive criminal history.

It could have been a storeowner chasing somebody who robbed him. It could have been any number of circumstances. So race absolutely was a major decision maker in that officer pulling the trigger. And then unfortunately again, most police officers never want to say - we never want to shoot another police officer. But race is a major component of that decision that was made in taking his life.

MARTIN: There seems to be a disconnect at this point. I think we should pick up on this point, but we need to take a short break. When we return we're going to continue our conversation about this tragic incident in New York with Jon Shane, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Law Enforcement, Anthony Miranda, Chairman of the National Association of Latino Officers, and Eric Adams, New York State senator and a retired NYPD officer. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, mad spellers claimed their newest champion last week when Kavya Shivshankar won last week's Scripps National Spelling Bee. And we just happened to notice that seven of the last 11 spelling champs have also been of South Asian heritage. In a moment, we will speak with the first Indian-American winner about the keys to spelling success. But first we want to continue our conversation about the shooting death of New York police officer Omar Edwards last week.

Edwards, who is black, was off duty and chasing a suspected car thief when he was shot and killed by undercover officer, an undercover - sorry, by a fellow officer who is white, and today we're talking about the dangers that confront off-duty officers of color or officers of color in plain clothes and what's being done to address those dangers. I'm speaking with three men who have all served as police officers and thought a lot about the issue we are discussing. Anthony Miranda is Chairman of the National Latino Officers Association. He's a former sergeant in the New York Police Department. Jon Shane is an assistant professor in the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

He's retired from the Newark Police Department. And New York State Senator Eric Adams is the cofounder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group comprised of law enforcement personnel and their supporters. I thank you all so much for staying with us. Before we took our break we were talking about the fact that the two officers of color - former officers of color seem very convinced that race is a matter of - in this incident, is a factor in this incident. And Jon Shane I found that you were skeptical. I just want to spend just briefly one more minute asking you what you think of that difference of opinion.

Prof. SHANE: Well, let me say this. Legally, the law allows for police officers to make mistakes. You must be right about the law but you can be wrong about the facts, and I think I heard Mr. Miranda say before the break that there are situations where a police officer may be chasing after a storeowner and confront that storeowner and mistakenly shoot and kill that person and that the tactics don't necessarily justify shooting and killing someone. He's probably right about the tactical portion but the law allows leeway.

We can't possibly judge a police officer's actions like Mr. Adams said that unfold in seconds with 20-20 hindsight. We have to put ourselves in the position of that police officer making the decision at that moment in time. If someone is running toward me with a handgun and I'm telling them to stop, they may not hear me because as someone said earlier the adrenaline is flowing and emotions are running high. And that person doesn't stop, doesn't comply with my commands and I raise my firearm and take a shot and if I fire four or five shots or six shots and that person still doesn't stop, I'm going to have to continue to fire until the threat is stopped regardless of the person's race. And that's…

Sen. ADAMS: And I agree 100 percent. I think that your depiction as you just did is accurate. However, if a person is running away from me, if my shot to him is to his back that's a different circumstance and that needs to be investigated to determine if there's some type of criminality. It's one thing if a threat is coming towards you or if there's an immediate threat to another innocent person and you discharge your firearm.

MARTIN: But can I just ask Professor Shane about the point that you made earlier, Senator Adams, which is the argument that both you and Mr. Miranda are making that the training doesn't address the real world points of view, baggage if you want to call it that, that many people bring to the job. Professor Shane, what about that? Is there something that could be done in the course of training to address the realities of what people are hearing and absorbing all day long?

Prof. SHANE: Yeah, I think there is. And here's how I would play that scenario out. First let me qualify my answer by saying I do not how the New York City Police Department trains for these situations, but I can tell you that police departments around the country do place police officers into live fire situations. And what they do is they replace their duty ammo with simulated firing rounds and put officers into tense situations and try to watch their reaction. The second thing they do is they train on firearms simulators.

That's about the best that we're going to be able to do because no amount of training and no amount of policy is ever going to guide you definitively to the answer that I must now pull the trigger. That decision is idiosyncratic and it clearly resides with the police officer.

MARTIN: But does the training address the associations that people may have with people who don't look like them, and can it?

Prof. SHANE: Well, I mean, it certainly can but like I said, I don't know exactly how the New York City Police Department is training. I think that it certainly can. I mean, you have to have training that reflects real world realities.

MARTIN: Can I ask Mr. Miranda - forgive me for interrupting - but Mr. Miranda, as I understand you advise members of your association if they are in plain clothes and come upon a situation, to call 911 rather than intervene themselves. Is that - do I have that right?

Mr. MIRANDA: That's correct. We do advise them that it's a safer decision is to call 911. The police department does not train their plain clothes or anti-crime officers differently than they train their uniform police officers. There should be a mandated separate type of more intense training, more sensitive to those situations where they have confrontations off duty. And we need to be real careful in the justifications that people are trying to say now, because these justifications can be used by criminals later on when they shoot other plain clothes officers.

All right, in this case, Omar would be considered a plain clothes officer taking police action. They keep saying off duty, but he might have been off duty but he was still plain clothes. He was taking police action. That made him official and now you have responding officers taking police action. Now we can…

MARTIN: Is that realistic though, to ask people - presumably the reason why people are attracted to that job is that they want to do things. They want to help people. They want to, you know, they are putting themselves in harm's way. They've chosen to do that by their profession. Is it realistic to ask your officers who have trained themselves to do that to somehow stand down? Can they do that and - would they be respected for doing so if they did?

Mr. MIRANDA: Probably in most situations they wouldn't be. Again, the police department is much younger now in New York City. They're training these guys based on number quotas, arrest quotas, summons quotas and that's their focus. So there's no real sensitivity about serving the community. Unfortunately in an off-duty capacity as a black or Hispanic there's a greater chance that your actions are going to be judged incorrectly by responding officers. And if you have any choice then it would be to step out of the situation and call 911 or make sure that they at least gave a description so that you don't end up in the same situation as Officer Omar.

MARTIN: Senator Adams?

Sen. ADAMS: Well, one of the best quotes I heard from an officer and he was - I didn't consider this officer to be a racist. I thought he was a decent person and he happened to be white. He says, he told me, he said - I was lieutenant at the time and it was right after, I think it was just involved in one of those shootings, and he says, lieutenant let me be very honest with you. If I see a white guy with a gun I'm going to take precautions for him and myself because he may be a cop. If I see a black guy with a gun I'm taking precautions for myself. That is the mindset that is on the field and not until we're honest about that - police did not create the racial stereotypes that exist in society but we have to police in it.

MARTIN: Can you untrain those - untrain that point of view?

Sen. ADAMS: Yes, you can. And that was part of my conversation with Commissioner Kelly. For once, we have to stop blaming ourselves for all these racial stereotypes and ethnic stereotypes that exist in society and train towards them. Let's bring in the scholars, the criminologists, the sociologists, the psychologists and say, here's the parameters that we have to police in, here's what our police officers are taking in their thoughts when they deal with the public and a large number in some areas are certain ethnic groups who commit crimes. How do we allow the - train them to teach in that environment?

I think that's possible. We've never done that. We've constantly stated that when a police officer's out there he doesn't see race, he doesn't see ethnicity. That is a lie. He does. I see race. I've made bad decisions. I live in a black community and I've made the wrong decision when I came on contact with a person of color because I thought the wrong way. If it happens to me and I know black doctors, lawyers, and judges and neighbors, then you'd better believe it happens to a white officer that doesn't have the same environment.

MARTIN: Professor, I'm going to give you the last word because you're in the training business now. And I want to ask, do you think that Senator Adams is right and do you think you can untrain perspectives that are pervasive? They're not invented, as he said, by police officers, but they're absorbed by everybody. Can you untrain those?

Prof. SHANE: It's not - excuse me - it's not a matter of untraining necessarily as it is about training for the reality of the situation. It's going to be virtually impossible to leave our personal biases at the door, forget what we heard in the media, forget what we read in the New York Times, forget what we saw in a Hollywood movie. I think that's going to be virtually impossible. What we have to be able to do is train for realities, and those things are behaviorally based.

When you're confronting someone with a handgun in a city like New York, in a predominately black or Hispanic community, what are you thinking about? What's playing out in your mind? What sorts of behaviors are you looking for? And what are you doing tactically as a police officer confronting someone?

That's what is extremely important. Yes, he's right. Race ultimately does have some sort of bearing on these things, but if you're bringing cultural bias into the picture, it's coming from, like he said, places where it's been invented before, not within the police department. And what we need to try to do is say well, you've got these things that you're coming through the door with, but let's replace those with behavioral aspects.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Jon Shane is an assistant professor in the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He joined us from member-station WBGO in Newark. New York State Senator Eric Adams joined us from his office in Albany. Anthony Miranda, chairman of the National Latino Officers Association was in our New York bureau. I want to mention all our former police officers of long standing. I thank you all so much for joining us to talk about this important issue.

Prof. SHANE: Thank you for having me.

State Sen. ADAMS: Thank you very much.

Mr. MIRANDA: You're welcome.

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