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Barbershop: White House Calls Stephon Clark Shooting A 'Local' Matter


Now it's time for the Barbershop - that's where we ask interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And this week, we want to talk about the relationship between police and the communities they serve again.

And it's a topic which is in the news again because of what happened in Sacramento almost two weeks ago. Twenty two-year-old Stephon Clark was fatally shot by officers who said they thought he had a gun. He didn't. There was a cellphone in his hand. There was an emotional funeral service this week, and protests are continuing.

We wanted to talk about this with people who have been talking about this and working on these issues and the issues raised by this latest shooting, so we've called Berry Accius (ph). He's a community activist in Sacramento and founder of Voice of the Youth - that's a mentorship program for young people in Sacramento. Berry,

thanks so much for talking to us.

BERRY ACCIUS: How are you doing? It's Berry Ax-ee-us (ph).

MARTIN: Ax-ee-us, got you.

ACCIUS: You've got it now.

MARTIN: Oh, got you - Accius, thanks so much for the correction. Also with us, Ron Hampton. He's a retired, longtime Washington, D.C., police officer. He's the immediate former executive director of the National Black Police Association. He's with us via Skype, as is Berry.

Ron Hampton, thank you so much for joining us again.

RON HAMPTON: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Sue Rahr. She was a former sheriff of King County in Washington state. She's becoming known for her efforts to change the way police officers are trained. And Sue Rahr is also with us via Skype. Sue, thank you so much for joining us once again.

SUE RAHR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let me start with this basic question. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, was asked about the Sacramento case and the case of Alton Sterling, who was killed in Baton Rouge in 2016 in front of a convenience store where he'd been selling CDs. And it was just announced last week that the officers in Baton Rouge would not face any criminal charges, although one of the officers involved in the shooting will be fired. And this is what Sarah Sanders had to say about that.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's certainly a terrible incident. This is something that is a local matter, and that's something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point.

MARTIN: So let me just start by asking if anybody agrees with her that these are essentially local matters that should be handled locally. Berry, can I start with you on that? What do you think?

ACCIUS: I mean, when you see a presidency that has ran like a joke, as this one is, what you expect is exactly those kind of answers. There's nothing local about this. It's a nationwide epidemic of police officers killing black people. And it has been going on historically, so I don't see how we would sit there and try to define it as just being a local thing.

And the unfortunate part of it is until these police officers are held accountable by - whether it's our president, whether it's the folks in the legislation or the folks locally who have some kind of power to be able to do something to these officers to get justice for these people that they killed, we're going to continue to have the same thing. And like I said, I've said numerous times, we have to change that police bill of rights.

MARTIN: OK, let's - let me ask Sue and Ron because both of you have served in local departments, both of you for long periods of time. Sue, local issue or national issue?

RAHR: It's going to be a little bit of both. All of the mechanisms in our structure of criminal justice - all the authority rests at the local level. However, traditionally, the federal government has been active in supporting training and reform measures. So it's not just one or the other, but the accountability in our system is at the local level.

MARTIN: And Ron Hampton?

HAMPTON: Well, yeah. There's a role for both the local level and the federal level. What we have been able to depend on in the past, dependent on the administration, was that the federal government represented the hammer, and they didn't hesitate to bring it down. And we needed the kind of remedial also kind of action that the federal government will provide through consent decrees, memorandum of agreements, through lawsuits, through individuals with a hundred years of experience coming in talking about restructuring the police department.

Because - and that's - I used the term restructuring because I think reform hasn't worked. We - reform is something that we do around the edges. To restructure the police department is the kind of things that we need to do, and now that we don't have a Justice Department to come in and look at, evaluate and analyze the policies and practices of these local agencies, then I think we are going to be in some real serious trouble.

MARTIN: Well, I want to - that's actually where I want to go next on this, which is what do you think would make a difference? And I do want to - just to reinforce the point that Ron Hampton just made - that the Justice Department had been in the Baton Rouge, the Alton Sterling case in Baton Rouge, the Justice Department had been investigating, but they closed the investigation back in May of 2017. The Louisiana attorney general just closed their investigation as well, saying the officers acted reasonably.

But as we said earlier, the police department says that one of the officers is fired and - will be fired, and the other will be disciplined. So let's move into the question that both - that all of you really have started talking about, which is, what would make things different? What would make a difference? So I'm going to ask you to start here because you've gotten a national reputation for talking about training. What do you think should be different? Or should anything be different?

RAHR: Well, I think there's a couple of things. Obviously, training is absolutely critical. And of the 18,000 police departments in this country, half of them have less than 10 officers. Many of those have completely inadequate training budgets. So that's one problem. The other challenge is this system was designed to be controlled at the local level, so all of the authority rests with the city councils or the county councils or whatever the local form of government is, and that's where the decision making is about how much - what's going to be devoted to training police officers.

We also can't lose sight of the policy implications. A lot of these conversations, if you stand on the sidelines, it sounds like the police departments are operating independently. That is not the case. The policy direction comes from the elected officials. And I would point you to the Ferguson incident. When we dug deeper, we found that many of the problems reached far beyond the police department.

MARTIN: Ron Hampton, what about you?

HAMPTON: Well, I think everything that the sheriff says is absolutely true. I also have been a police officer. Some of the problem is in the actual training of police officers. See, and I think, to some extent, for example, that police officers do exactly what they're trained to do. And in saying that - like, using weapons, you know - they're also taught how to use a weapon, but they also train to be able to know how to justify using the weapon. And so we have even seen some of that, you know.

And let me give you a quick example. In the thing that just happened in Sacramento, you listen to the tape, and I think they said, stop, police or something like that. But they also - what we hear police officers saying now since we've got tape and video of them, we hear them say things like gun, gun, gun. And see, so if there's a - if whether there's a gun or not, we don't know. But by them using the term gun, it gets recorded, and now that's justification for them to use their weapon in terms of the shooting and use deadly force.

So what we have to do - I think what we have to do is if we want to train police officers to be - it was brought up on television the other night that if you look at the dangerous factors of being a police officer in this country, I think it's number 14. And they list all of the things.


HAMPTON: So we're number 14. But the fact of the matter is, is that, yeah, we - there is a danger that exists to it, but training and education is designed to reduce the danger because it educates and trains the officers in terms of how they get around that and what to do.

MARTIN: Let's get Berry back. OK, thanks. Let's get Berry back in here. Berry, tell us what - you brought up something earlier that you said was important, which is the police officers' bill of rights. Talk a little bit more about that and whatever else you feel would make a difference.

ACCIUS: And, well, first of all, the police never said that they were police officers in that moment when Mr. Clark - and I think that's some of those situations when we look at how police are policing the community, they kind of run rogue. And because of the police bill of rights - as they have said, I mean, it almost leaves the police untouchable because they have so many things that create scrutiny.

Where we would look at a videotape or where we would look at an incident and say, oh, well, that's excessive force, well, in those bill of rights, they're kind of protected. And in that motion, when you're sitting there saying gun, or where you're sitting there saying, I feared for my life, right there, you could almost automatically say that that police officer is going to pretty much walk.

MARTIN: Can I...

ACCIUS: So I think...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

ACCIUS: ...A lot of what happens is we have way too many police officers that, one, aren't drug tested enough. I believe that they should be drug tested after a lethal shooting or a non-lethal shooting. And - as well as, every third month, have psych evals. Because we know the pressures our police have, but we're not getting the things that they need to keep them sane. So I think when we constantly figure and go on and on and on without kind of checking in with our police officers, just expecting that they're OK - I think that kind of creates a recipe for disaster.

MARTIN: Well, I just want to thank you all for joining us, and I realize we don't have enough time for this very, you know, important conversation. You know, I'm sorry that we keep having it, but we're going to continue to have it until we don't need to have it. So I hope I'll talk with you all again, and I hope it's under better circumstances. But I'm pretty confident we will be talking again.

That's Berry Accius. He's a community organizer in Sacramento. Ron Hampton is a retired Washington, D.C., police officer and the former director of the National Black Police Officers Association. Sue Rahr is former sheriff of King County in Washington state. They were all with us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.