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NPR Correspondent Looks Back At The Decade In Policing


As the decade winds down, we're recalling some of the biggest stories of the past 10 years. Today, we're looking back at the crisis of confidence in the nation's criminal justice system - a crisis that became impossible to ignore in the summer of 2014 - the summer of Ferguson.


LESTER HOLT: There is growing outrage tonight after an unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. But there are conflicting reports about what led up to the shooting.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.

MARTIN: The 2010s saw a revolution in the way many Americans think about policing as well as a backlash against that revolution. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste has been covering it.

Welcome, Martin. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Sure. My pleasure.

MARTIN: Martin, let me be clear. The concerns about excessive force, about disrespectful or heavy-handed policing, have always existed. But back in 2014, you were still relatively new on the law enforcement beat. How do you recall that year, when these questions about policing became something that went beyond the neighborhoods and the people who'd always been affected by it?

KASTE: Well, you know, this phrase Black Lives Matter already existed at the time. It seems to have started when George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting Trayvon Martin back in 2012. But the summer of 2014, Black Lives Matter really became a nationally visible sort of sentiment - that people started talking about it nationally.

And that was in response to Eric Garner's death in New York. He was selling untaxed cigarettes, was tackled by a police officer with sort of a neck hold and said I can't breathe as he died. The video of that had a big impact. And then we had Ferguson, Mo., in August of 2014. I wasn't there for the start of the protests, but my colleague Cheryl Corley was, and I asked her to recall that moment.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I remember thousands of people just pouring onto the streets of this really small town, Ferguson. You know, they sprawled across roads, they crowded in front of the police station. And they gathered in front of the burnt-out gas station convenience store which was really the epicenter of the protest. It was not far from the road where Michael Brown, the black teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, the white police officer in this case.

There was just a multiracial parade of people, some with children, holding signs, many of them with pictures of Brown. And they marched, and they chanted.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.

MARTIN: Martin, what's your take on why Ferguson became this rallying point?

KASTE: Ferguson in some ways perfectly captured sort of this ongoing frustration with police. This is a community - you know, it's a suburb of St. Louis - where people had come to see police officers as kind of harassers - that they would pull people over all the time for small infractions. They'd get hit with fines, court fees. And the city was funding itself with that kind of income. And it really was sort of in some ways an explosion waiting to happen there.

MARTIN: This situation was not unique to Ferguson, although I think perhaps the size of Ferguson - with such a small town, perhaps it brought it into sort of sharp relief. But your reporting indicated that that situation was not unique.

KASTE: Yeah. And I think, you know, that sense of seeing the police as not being on your side, as being there basically to give you a hard time and maybe, you know, find some way to extract money from you - that combined with the images of the police during those protests, who were wearing heavy gear. They were wearing riot gear, they had an armored vehicle parked there. That sort of fed into this sort of new conversation about what people came to call police militarization - the idea that police had become too sort of warrior-like in their mentality toward the general public.

You know, after Ferguson, we started looking around and seeing that everywhere in the country, not just in neighborhoods with minority populations. I went to Utah in 2015, and there, the state had started counting the number of times that police were using SWAT techniques and SWAT equipment. You know, the state was still dealing with the fallout from another drug raid gone wrong there.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

KASTE: That's dash cam video from a backup police car arriving at the scene. A tactical team from the local drug task force had gone into a little house where marijuana was being grown. But they ran into gunfire, and an officer was killed. The resident, Matthew Stewart, later said that he thought he was being robbed. Three and a half years later, his father, Michael Stewart, sits in a car in a church parking lot across from the house, recalling the aftermath.

MICHAEL STEWART: There was bullets in the house next door. These guys were - they were just shooting, you know? I mean, this neighborhood has children. You know, why would they be that out of control?

MARTIN: So that - you know, that phrase, out of control - is that a widely held sentiment? I mean, tell me your assessment of that characterization when talking about the police use of force.

KASTE: Well, police are not monolithic. But there's a sense, I think, among police that, you know, use of force has never been pretty, but all of a sudden, it was becoming a lot more visible. And news organizations were paying attention in a different way.

For one thing, after Ferguson, a couple of news organizations - The Washington Post and The Guardian - just started counting the number of people killed by police every year, and they found that the real numbers were twice as high as the official federal number. It was actually about a thousand people a year or almost that.

But I really think the biggest factor here in some ways was the sudden omnipresence of smartphones with video cameras and just the fact that we were now seeing what use of force looked like. And even when it was legitimate, it often didn't look that great.

There was a period of two or three years there after Ferguson where most of my job, it seemed like for a while, was just doing analysis stories about terrible-looking videos - you know, familiar names. We still remember Walter Scott, Sandra Bland. And, of course, there was Philando Castile.


DAVID MUIR: We begin tonight with that chilling piece of video live-streamed on Facebook in the moments after a man is shot by police, his girlfriend in the car pulling out her phone and then capturing the moments right after.


DIAMOND REYNOLDS: He just shot his arm off. We got pulled over on Larpenteur.

JERONIMO YANEZ: I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand off it.

REYNOLDS: He had - you told him to get his ID, sir, and his driver's license. Oh, my God. Please don't tell me he's dead.

MARTIN: Martin, obviously that's very disturbing. It was a very disturbing case. Can you just remind us of what happened there?

KASTE: The officer in the case was prosecuted but then acquitted. You can talk about hypotheticals. He might not have ever been prosecuted had this happened before Ferguson. But he was acquitted, which obviously upset people very much. There was a lot of talk at the time about whether or not the whole threshold for what constitutes reasonable use of force, deadly force by police officers, should change.

And we did see some results from that in the fact that California, for example, recently changed how they define when it's reasonable for a police officer to use deadly force. Because frankly, in a lot of these situations, the jury get jury instructions based on existing law that makes it very hard for them to convict.

MARTIN: But I think it is fair to say that there's also been a reaction by law enforcement to cases like this and to the protests around these cases. So tell us about that.

KASTE: A lot of the police I would talk to during this period - they were really resentful about what they regarded as sort of armchair quarterbacking by people who don't understand. They just see these videos but don't necessarily understand the tactical realities or the - you know, the potential for danger in some of these encounters and why police officers might act in a certain way. They kind of felt like this kind of protest was just creating a negative atmosphere that was actually creating even more danger for officers.

And then, unfortunately, in July of 2016, it seemed to them that that was confirmed when officers were ambushed and killed in Dallas - five officers killed, more injured. Now, it's important to put those deaths - you know, they were horrible - but into the statistical context here, is that they are still relatively rare even during this period.

MARTIN: So, Martin, here we are. We're five years after Ferguson. Do you think anything has changed?

KASTE: I think it has. You know, there are the obvious things. Body cameras are now really common. You see them on - in a lot of departments. Frankly, I'll tell you that police have come to like those cameras. They see it as a kind of - a form of insurance. And prosecutors love them because now, you know, unintended consequence here - the primary use of body cam video now is for prosecutions to make a case against suspects.

There's a lot more de-escalation training now, a lot more training for police on how to handle people's mental crises. I hear more police chiefs talking about the need for police to be trained to think of themselves as guardians instead of warriors.

You know, there's a police recruiting crisis right now, and so just real job market realities are kicking in here where departments are trying to appeal to a younger generation by deemphasizing sort of the gung-ho stuff. You don't see these recruitment videos anymore with sort of the "Rambo" stuff. You see recruiting efforts that are more based on the image of an officer as sort of a community servant. I mean, that's how it's being sold now to potential new police officers, and I do think that actually has an effect on the kinds of people who are signing up.

MARTIN: That is NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste.

Martin, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.