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'Washington Post' Reporter Describes 'Social Contract' Of Police-Involved Shootings


There have been two not-guilty verdicts in high-profile police shooting cases since Friday. Yesterday, a Wisconsin jury acquitted a former police officer in the on-duty killing of 23-year-old Sylville Smith. And a former police officer in Minnesota was acquitted in the shooting death of Philando Castile last Friday. The verdicts in both cases have sparked outrage across the country, but neither was surprising. Officers are rarely charged, and when they are, they're usually acquitted.

Wesley Lowery covers race and justice for The Washington Post. He's part of a team that's been keeping track of police shootings.

WESLEY LOWERY: Somewhere between two and three people are shot and killed by police officers every single day. In a given year, there'll be somewhere between 900 and a thousand fatal police shootings.

CORNISH: So the other focus here is people being charged - right? - police being charged and possibly even convicted. Now, we know that Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the Philando Castile case because the jury thought he had, quote, "reasonable fear." Has anyone tried to change the standard of reasonable fear? Has this conversation changed at all in the last two years?

LOWERY: So the conversation has not changed a ton. What very often juries are instructed to think about and what judges often think about is whether or not other officers in this scenario would have behaved in a similar fashion. If the fear that this officer said he had - if that fear was accurate, would it be OK for them to use this force, right? What we see - and I think this is what's hard sometimes for the public to grasp or put their arms around - is the idea that those cases where the officer's threat assessment is inaccurate - that does not necessarily factor into whether or not the use of force was justified because if their fear was real, it doesn't matter that their fear was of something that was not there.

CORNISH: As this debate went national, you heard from police unions and officers who said that, you know, they're going to be under all kinds of scrutiny; it's going to affect how they do their jobs because of this threat - right? - of being charged, of having their judgment questioned, of potentially being convicted. When you actually look at charges, has that changed over the last couple years?

LOWERY: So we've certainly seen an uptick in the number of officers being charged. Previously, from about 2005 to 2014, we were seeing about five or six officers charged a year in connection to a fatal police shooting. What we see in the last few years is that number's about doubled, in some ways tripled, and it's still less than 1 percent of the total police-involved shootings, right? So in 2015, you got 990 fatal shootings, 18 officers charged.

CORNISH: But frankly, officers get weapons pulled on them all the time. It's not like all of these shootings are under murky circumstances.

LOWERY: Sure, certainly. The vast majority of fatal police shootings are the result of someone who is armed with a weapon. But that said, there are certainly hundreds of shootings each year where either the person is unarmed, where the person is armed with something less than a gun, whether it means they're holding a screwdriver, a knife or a broomstick. But also, there are cases where the person is technically armed with a gun where perhaps further examination would be necessary.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, people are looking for convictions, right? Activists are looking for convictions, but convictions have not been on the rise, right? That's not something that's changed even with the national spotlight on this issue.

LOWERY: No, not at all. The reality is it's extremely difficult. Less than one-tenth of a percentage of shootings - of fatal police shootings result in a conviction. The reality is, in most of these cases, American juries, American judges do not want to convict police officers.

CORNISH: Many people, people in the African-American community have spoken out about the acquittals that we've heard about in recent days. What's your response? Like, what do you tell communities like this, that the police just have different standards when it comes to shooting deaths?

LOWERY: Yes. The reality is that we live in a society where we allow the police to kill people. You know, we've made that decision. That's the social contract we ventured into. The police are allowed to kill you. If they get scared, they're allowed to kill you. And so it's very frustrating. People watch the Walter Scott video in North Charleston and see a black man running away, being shot in the back. And they think, how could that not be murder? But in law enforcement, they have this turn of phrase called lawful but awful, the idea that many of these shootings are not by the letter of the law crimes even if the shooting itself is horrible and terrible to watch and is something that people wish had not happened.

CORNISH: Wesley Lowery is part of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning team that's been tracking police shootings for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LOWERY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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