DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Michael Brown's death in Ferguson sparked a new conversation about policing in America. Our colleague Martin Kaste covers law enforcement. He's been looking at whether that conversation has remained just that, a conversation, or whether there's been real change.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: I think you can point to one concrete verifiable change, and that's the embrace of body cameras. Before Ferguson, adoption had started. It was rolling along, but there was still a lot of skepticism. But after Ferguson, a lot of that skepticism changed, especially on the part of officers. When their departments don't buy them, they often buy them themselves. They buy their own personal body cameras. And it's because when they looked at Ferguson, they started to worry about what would happen if there was an incident and there wasn't video to prove their side. And they started feeling vulnerable not having the cameras. And departments, as we've all seen, feel a lot of pressure to adopt them. So I'd say that is probably the most immediate effect of Ferguson.
GREENE: What about actual techniques that police use? And I guess, specifically, I mean, when they decide to use deadly force.
KASTE: Well, you're hearing a lot of talk at the command level from the chiefs about the need for change, about the need to build legitimacy, to be guardians not warriors. These are a lot of the phrases you hear. They're very popular. LAPD right now in Los Angeles, they're right in the middle of a big crash course for all 10,000 of their officers, learning some of these new concepts. And you hear a lot of that talk, and it's coming out of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was this effort that came out after Ferguson to think through new strategies for changing the way police work in the United States. So, you know, from the top down, you're hearing a lot of interest in changing the mentality of policing. But it should be said that all of this change really is still voluntary. And there are 18,000 police agencies give or take in this country. And it's a very decentralized system. And there's not necessarily a unified push for a new standard here.
GREENE: Yeah. At the local level, Martin, you hear so many police chiefs and community activists talking about the importance of trust and building trust between a police department and a community. I mean, do you hear that kind of talk from police officers themselves as something they really are striving for right now?
KASTE: You know, when you talk to officers off the record, not so much. I mean, this varies a lot. Police officers are just as diverse as the agencies that they work for. But when I talk to them off the record over a drink or something like that, there's a lot of skepticism. And one of the reasons they're sort of feeling under siege right now is first of all, from the legal point of view, they're worried that now prosecutors may go after them for political reasons because of this new change in the air whenever they make what they believe to be an honest mistake in use of force. And there's also this sense that they're in danger on the street. The statistics don't bear this out. They aren't being shot more since Ferguson. But there's still this sense that they've got to be tactically ready. And there's very little interest, in a lot of the officers I've talked to, in, say, dialing back their use of SWAT teams on drug raids, that kind of thing. I was talking about this with Peter Kraska, who's a professor who's been tracking this process of what he calls the militarization of the police. And he put it this way.
PETER KRASKA: They're digging in their heels with this notion that they actually are policing a very dangerous society, a well-armed society, and armored personnel carriers, for example, are a reasonable reaction.
GREENE: Martin, that doesn't make it sound like we're getting closer to communities coming together.
KASTE: Well, it's a very diverse group of officers across the country. You hear a lot of different points of view. A lot of them have embraced the idea that there should be a different mentality. And as Peter Kraska said, you know, where we are right now took years to get to. And he thinks it'll take more than just one year to change the way American police officers think.
GREENE: That was NPR's Martin Kaste speaking to us about policing in America nearly a year after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
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