Why calls for reform have not reduced the number of people killed by police

More than 1,000 people died at the hands of law enforcement in 2022 and wide racial disparities persisted among those deaths. One of those killed last year was Amir Locke, who was shot by police in Minneapolis executing a no-knock warrant. John Yang spoke with Locke's mother about her experience and looks at where policing in America goes from here.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Los Angeles police have released a video of the arrest of Keenan Anderson, the cousin of a Black Lives Matter co-founder. He was detained earlier this month and Tased after he was involved in a car accident.

    As he was being arrested, he expressed fears that he would meet the same fate as George Floyd, who's killing by police sparked nationwide protests. Anderson died in police custody several hours later. The incident is still being investigated, but it's a stark reminder of the hundreds of people who die at the hands of police each year and the wide racial disparities that persist among those deaths.

    John Yang has this report on one mother's experience and where policing in America goes from here.

  • John Yang:

    Twenty-two-year-old Amir Locke was an aspiring musician and, to his mother, Karen Wells, a loving son.

    Karen Wells, Mother of Amir Locke: He had a really good sense of humor. His smile, it was infectious. He loved to give hugs. So, I — that makes me smile.

  • John Yang:

    It was 11 months ago that a police officer shot and killed Locke in a downtown Minneapolis apartment. For Wells, it's been 11 months of devastation.

  • Karen Wells:

    Mentally, in order for me to get through the day, I basically just tell myself Amir is on vacation.

  • John Yang:

    Each time Wells returns to Minnesota or learns about another death at the hands of Twin Cities police, the pain of her son's killing comes rushing back.

  • Karen Wells:

    My heart don't beat the same anymore. It does not beat the same. It's broken. And it'll never — the best surgeon in America could never repair my heart, after what they did to my son.

  • John Yang:

    On the morning of February 2, Minneapolis police executed a no-knock search warrant on an apartment in connection with a homicide investigation. Locke wasn't named in the warrant, and didn't live at the apartment.

    When officers stormed through the door, he appeared to be asleep on a couch. Locke stirred from under a blanket. He was holding a handgun, which family said he was licensed to carry. An officer fired three shots. The killing touched off days of protests in Minneapolis still reeling from the death of George Floyd less than two years earlier.

    Adding to the public outrage, initial police accounts wrongly named Locke as a suspect. In the weeks that followed, the city of Minneapolis banned no-knock warrants. But prosecutors did not charge the officer who fired the fatal shots, concluding that he felt threatened.

  • Michael Freeman, Hennepin County, Minnesota, Attorney:

    Amir Locke was holding it by the butt of the gun in a shooting position, although his finger was not on the trigger. That gun was pointed directly at Officer Hanneman.

  • John Yang:

    Karen Wells says her son was simply protecting himself. She no longer trusts police, and sees little progress on the reforms that were promised after Floyd's killing.

  • Karen Wells:

    The saying is, you have to crawl before you walk. They're not even at the stage of crawling right now when it comes to police reform.

    I believe that we will get to the running stage when more police officers are held accountable for their mistakes, their lethal mistakes.

  • John Yang:

    According to a Washington Post database, in 2022, police in the United States shot and killed about 1,100 people, the most since the paper began tracking fatal police shootings in 2015, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

    But The Post found that, while the number of fatal police shootings is increasing, fewer are being reported to the federal government.

  • Andrew Ba Tran, The Washington Post:

    There's a saying, that you track what you care about.

  • John Yang:

    Andrew Ba Tran is a data reporter for The Post's investigative team.

  • Andrew Ba Tran:

    This just shows, as researchers have said, that the overall attempt to track police-involved shootings has failed. There are too many loopholes for police departments to not report their police-involved shootings. If they don't want to, they're not going to.

  • John Yang:

    For Karen Wells, the focus remains justice for her son.

  • Karen Wells:

    We're going to keep saying Amir Locke, justice for Amir Locke. I won't be quiet until I get justice for my son. I will never stop speaking up for him, never.

  • John Yang:

    It's been more than 2.5 years since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which led to calls for sweeping police reform and more accountability. What's been accomplished in that time?

    Thaddeus Johnson is a criminology professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a former Memphis police officer.

    Thaddeus Johnson, what has been accomplished in that time?

  • Thaddeus Johnson, Georgia State University:

    I think we're trending in the right direction, but we have only created a baseline for the reforms necessary to create a police force that's trustworthy and effective.

    I think that there's a lot of politicization. There are some obstacles, but also there's a lack of data and evidence to really know where to pinpoint reform or to do it in a very efficient way. And, so, the first thing we need is a database. We need more data on traffic stops, arrests, police use of force, both lethal and nonlethal.

    The federal government, with President Biden's executive order, he created a blueprint. But we still have a long way to go. We understand the limits of policing. We understand that it's not just the officers on the streets, that it's actually leadership, it's state laws, it's lawmakers. But we're kind of sorting these things out, and I think that's a natural progression.

  • John Yang:

    You say it's just — it's created a baseline.

    We just heard in the in the tape the mother of Amir Locke talk very movingly about that — about what she's gone through and how it's affected her attitude toward police and police officers, and how she's fighting for justice for her son.

    What's your message to her and to so many other mothers and fathers like her who've lost children to police violence?

  • Thaddeus Johnson:

    Well, I would let her know that she's not fighting alone, even though it may feel like it.

    Even if we don't see state laws being passed or these big, obvious, high-magnitude changes that we may want to see, we have to understand that reform is a piecemeal approach. But you have many nonprofits. You have many prosecutors. You have many police leaders, many judges, many lawmakers who understand that we need to move forward.

    I mean, look, in the past couple of years, we have seen police officers held accountable criminally. That is something that we have never seen in my lifetime. And I tell everybody this. We may not see the department of police force that what we want to see in our generation, but if we continue the path that we're going, generations to come, our grandkids, they will reap the benefits of what's being done now.

  • John Yang:

    We also heard in the tape the — about The Washington Post's report looking into the disparity, the number of police shootings going up, but the number of police shootings reported to the federal government going down.

    What is the concern about what that creates and causes?

  • Thaddeus Johnson:

    Well, it's very concerning.

    Our tax dollars pay for the service. And that's the public's data. That's our data. And we shouldn't have to beg for it. It's hard to improve things when we don't even have a baseline of knowledge. And with the limited data that we have, we're almost, I don't want to say flying in the dark when it comes to creating interventions, but we don't have the data that we need to be comfortable oftentimes to make these determinations and these changes

  • John Yang:

    You taught use of force when you were an officer in Memphis.

    Does that training have to change in order for the policies to match the practices?

  • Thaddeus Johnson:

    The one thing that we taught officers were to take control of the scene.

    And taking control of the scene, we're teaching officers to be aggressive. We're teaching officers to assert their physical and legal authority on the scene, as opposed to dealing with our citizens like human beings, in which they are, as if they are co-producers for solutions of crime, or people who are actually going through some type of struggle.

    We have to also try our officers to de-escalate, not just verbally, but also for space between officers and the people that they encounter, particularly when you can tell and look at the cues that things are escalating.

    And one reason that you see officers tend to be overly assertive when it comes to these aspects is the emphasis of arrest, traffic stops, and custodial stops in the evaluation process. I mean, it's difficult to be promoted, it's difficult to get a more prestigious assignment, or get a better shift in a better neighborhood if you don't have high numbers in these areas.

    But many of these things don't have public safety value. And what they do, they tend to unnecessarily put police and citizens in adversarial situations that could have otherwise been prevented. When we also reward officers for these traditional antiquated crime-fighting metrics only, we also prevent the pipeline for more diverse leaders, whether it's younger leaders, whether it's women leaders, or whether it's nonwhite leaders, who research has shown has been attracted to this type policing, as opposed to the warrior-style policing that we have seen far too long.

  • John Yang:

    Thaddeus Johnson from Georgia State University, thank you very much.

  • Thaddeus Johnson:

    No, thank you for having me.

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