STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How is it that police officers sometimes shoot the wrong person? That question has grown more urgent after recent police killings of two black men. Emantic Bradford Jr. was killed while running from a shooting at an Alabama mall. Security guard Jemel Roberson died while trying to break up a fight in Illinois. Both men had guns at the time. Amid protests, police want the public to better understand their situation and trainers want to find how to encourage police to make better split-second decisions. Here's NPR criminal justice correspondent Cheryl Corley.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Justice.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Now.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: For days in Hoover, Ala., a suburb just outside of Birmingham, there have been protests for Emantic Bradford Jr. The 21-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. Pandemonium broke out after a shooting at a mall injured two people. Some witnesses said other people pulled out their own guns for protection. And police later admitted Bradford was not an assailant. Earlier in Illinois, a police officer fatally shot 26-year-old Jemel Roberson. He was a security guard at a nightclub in a Chicago suburb and had subdued a gunman who wounded others during a fight at the bar.
JOE LOUGHLIN: There are no good outcomes in these cases.
CORLEY: Joe Loughlin, a former Portland, Maine, assistant police chief, studies deadly police shootings. He says people don't have realistic information about policing, especially in chaotic situations.
LOUGHLIN: Every officer that has been involved and I've been on scene with and talked to in my work says it really wasn't a decision for me. It just was a reaction. I just had no choice. I reacted to what was in front of me at the time. I don't know if this guy's a good guy or a bad guy.
CORLEY: And with so many guns and concealed carry laws in the country, police say their job is increasingly risky. There's no official count, but the nonprofit Small Arms Survey estimates Americans possess nearly 400 million legal and illicit firearms. Former police officer David Klinger heads the criminology department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He says because police often have to make split-second decisions in situations where guns are involved, good training is essential.
DAVID KLINGER: And one of the points of training should be that merely because an individual has a firearm or some other weapon does not mean that they are an individual who needs to be shot.
CORLEY: Police fatally shoot about a thousand people each year, and many of those shootings are considered justified. About 50 cops a year lose their lives from gunshot wounds. Some are blue-on-blue incidents where law enforcement mistakenly kill one of their own, like the case of Jemel Roberson. There's some dispute over whether Roberson could be clearly identified as a security guard. Pete Blair is the head of an active shooter response training center at Texas State University. He says in situations where there's active gunfire or the threat of it, police are under a lot of stress.
PETE BLAIR: Whenever anybody's under high stress, that tunnel vision starts to kick in, and their field of view is really narrowed, and they may miss key identifiers of somebody as security or another police officer in there.
CORLEY: And he says there are ways to overcome that.
BLAIR: Part of it is teaching them an effective scanning sequence about how to look at the person that they're potentially going to engage, to look at key areas for identification, that kind of thing.
CORLEY: Active shooter training has increased around the country in recent years, but with about 18,000 police departments, methods are more patchwork than consistent. Activists say what really colors the decision police make in shooting incidents is racial bias. Benjamin Crump is the lawyer for the family of the man killed in Alabama. He says that was at play when Emantic Bradford Jr. was shot by police.
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BENJAMIN CRUMP: He saw a black man with a gun, and he made his determination that he must be a criminal.
CORLEY: Former assistant police chief Joe Loughlin says that's not how most police work.
LOUGHLIN: We look at things by behavior. Are there jerks out there? Are there bad cops? Sure. Are there racists out there? Of course. But by and large, the vast majority are considering what's presented in front of them.
CORLEY: Frank Zimring, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, says data show African-Americans are more at risk when it comes to being killed in police shootings. The reasons vary. Some studies say what's at fault is a systemic culture of racial bias in police departments that affects officers of all colors more than individual attitudes. Zimring says what's needed is more research examining the thousands of chaotic cases, like the Alabama and Illinois shootings, to help police devise better procedures.
FRANK ZIMRING: And until we do that, the situation is going to be unmanageable as a kind of a chronic condition. And it's horrendously threatening to civilians and terribly threatening to police.
CORLEY: And the police trainers say there's evidence when police are trained how to approach situations and better interact with people, the level of violence between them and citizens can be reduced. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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