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The shooting of Jayland Walker in Ohio revives questions about police training


About 1 in every 1,000 Black men can be expected to be killed by police. That's what researchers at Rutgers University concluded in 2019, before the killing of George Floyd and what many considered a reckoning about policing and race in the U.S. A week after police officers in Akron, Ohio, shot a Black man, Jayland Walker, dozens of times, many found themselves asking familiar questions about police use of deadly force, about potential bias, and also about how officers are trained. Rashawn Ray is an expert in police training. He's a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who also heads the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland.

Rashawn, OK, Akron Police is saying that its officers believe Walker was armed and that they thought he had fired on them during a car chase. Now, he did not have a gun on him when he was shot, and the gun was found in the car later with a clip removed. But does the video released support any of that?

RASHAWN RAY: Well, I think it could. You know, part of what is happening here with this particular incident is that there was a gun found. It seemed to be a gunshot. He hopped out the car with a mask on, and then a chase ensued. All of those are criminal acts. They are not deadly acts. And I think that is what's important. What people are looking at and the statistic you laid out is so important for people. And the important point is that Jayland Walker was unarmed at the time that he was killed. And a lot of people consider that to be overkill, compared to a white man who recently killed police officers, compared to, just yesterday on Independence Day, a person who shoots into a crowd of people, kills people and is apprehended peacefully. That was a white man.

So all of these incidents collectively speak to a problematic statistic, which is that Black people are 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police when they are not attacking and when they are unarmed. And you put these statistics together, and it leads to huge racial disparities and a lack of trust among the public.

MARTINEZ: But how reasonable is it to establish what police may have believed before he got out of the car because that's - you even say that possibly the video establishes that he had a gun. So if police think he had a gun, what - you know, is there any wiggle room there for them to say that when he was running, he might have had another one?

RAY: Yeah, of course. I mean, look, people have to realize that policing is a very difficult profession - I think arguably the most dangerous we have in the United States. And considering the number of guns that we have on the street - and again, there was a gun found in the vehicle. They perceived that they saw a gunshot coming from it that then escalated the situation. They're thinking about people around them. It's a high-pursuit chase. Adrenaline is pumping. I mean, they have a very difficult time trying to figure out not only what is going on, but how they are going to react in that situation. And unfortunately, it leads to the outcomes that we see.

MARTINEZ: Since George Floyd was killed, have police officers become any more hesitant to use deadly force?

RAY: No, not at all - not in any way, shape or form. This whole perception that what happened with George Floyd and even before that, this Ferguson effect, that some people would try to throw out simply does not hold water. We have not seen changes necessarily to police killings or even to racial disparities. And I think that's something that the American public really needs to think about - that two years ago, people were galvanized around what happened to George Floyd, wanted to see change not only at the federal level but also at the state level. Nothing really happened at the federal level outside of some executive orders. At the state level, some things did happen, and even locally, some things happened. But in the grand scheme, it has not shifted the needle in terms of some of the outcomes.

And my research suggests that it has to do with a lack of external accountability with law enforcement, meaning their interactions with the community and the public - that they have a lack of accountability with that. One really good example is not just what we see on the video of what happened with Jayland Walker and nearly those 10 officers, but it's the fact of how long it took for the video evidence to come out and then also how long it took those officers to make a formal statement. Those are situations where the system allows for a level of protection of officers that goes well above and beyond what happens to the general public, and it leads to a lack of trust and some of these outcomes continuing.

MARTINEZ: So when you look at the, you know, use of force in police responses, I mean, how much does the system need to change? It obviously hasn't changed quite enough or at all. But how much more does it need to change?

RAY: Well, I think it needs to change a lot. Look, I'll tell you one big one. One thing we know about this particular case is eventually there's going to be a large civil settlement paid out to Jayland Walker's family. And in some regards, that would be - do them, given the situation, the fact that he was unarmed, the overkill, and people in Akron are going to pay that price tag, and that's going to have consequences for them locally. You know who's not going to be on the hook for this? The Akron Police Department, because the current setup of police misconduct payouts is that not only does the money not come from the police department budgets - the money actually comes from general funds, money that could be going to education, to work infrastructure, to thinking about the environment and the community.

So we have to put that in a particular context, that even if these officers are never charged and even if they are, even if they're found not guilty, that becomes a slightly separate issue from the money that is paid out. And this is what's important for people to note here - over 90% of the time when a police officer kills someone, they are never charged. Even if they are charged, over 90% of the time of the ones that are charged, they are not convicted. And what are we talking about here? We're talking about over a thousand people are killed by police in the United States, a person - roughly three times a day, every 8 hours, a person is killed by police. And a lot of it has to do with this perceived threat that officers have because of the heightened way that guns infiltrate our lives every day.

MARTINEZ: Rashawn, just about 30 seconds to go - what's - if you could pick one thing, one thing that could help police officers make better decisions so that they're not killing people, what would it be?

RAY: Well, look, at the Lab for Applied Social Science Research, we have a virtual reality training program where we put officers in environments they go through every day. They're safe. They can go through them. We analyze them. I think we need upgraded training, and I think this is where it's going to maximize technology. That will really help keep officers safe and decrease the racial disparities that we see.

MARTINEZ: Rashawn Ray is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland. Rashawn, thanks.

RAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.