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Fatal Police Shootings Of Unarmed Black People Reveal Troubling Patterns


An NPR investigation has found that police killed 135 unarmed Black men and women since 2015. And for at least 15 officers, the shooting was not their first or last. All this in the years since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., galvanized nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black people. Cheryl W. Thompson, of NPR's investigations unit, is here to talk about her findings.

Hi, Cheryl.


SHAPIRO: Beyond the top-line findings that I just described, what else did you learn and what patterns were you able to find in the data that you collected?

THOMPSON: So I - some of the things I found - I looked at, like, the race of officers, how long they had been on the force, how these people were killed and what kind - in what instance and whether they were mentally ill or suffered from mental illness. And what I found was that 75% of the officers who shot were white and 19 of them were rookies with less than a year on the force. One actually was on the job for four hours before he fatally shot someone and another for four days and a third for a week. And then traffic stops, I found, were really - about a quarter of the people killed were killed during traffic stops. And about 18%, which is 24 or so people, of the victims suffered from mental illness.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Where did you get this data and how did you go about collecting it?

THOMPSON: It's like pulling teeth sometimes. But I filed lots of Freedom of Information Act request, right? But so the information came from thousands of pages of police reports and personnel records and use-of-force documents and police investigative files and court testimony and other court records. And also, I watched countless police dashcam and other kinds of videos.

SHAPIRO: Now, I mentioned that for several of these officers, they had more than one shooting. Explain how that happens. I mean, many police officers will never fire their weapon in their entire career. How does somebody shoot an unarmed person more than once?

THOMPSON: You know, Ari, it is unusual for officers to shoot, but it happens. And it happens - you know, if someone shoots and they're not disciplined, they're not prosecuted or they're not - you know, no action is taken against them and they're put back on the street, that gives - they're put back in a position to do it again. But a vast majority of the police officers go their entire careers without shooting.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned discipline and prosecution. Were there efforts to hold these officers accountable?

THOMPSON: There are some efforts. But in terms of being convicted, rarely. I found - I did find, like, 33 officers got fired or resigned, but at least three of them fought to get their jobs back and were successful. And then five others went on to work for other law enforcement agencies. In terms of officers being charged with murder, 13 were charged with murder, two were found guilty, three were acquitted, one was found not guilty of murder, but of a lesser charge and then seven murder cases are pending.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR investigative reporter Cheryl W. Thompson.

Thank you for your reporting today.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl W. Thompson is an investigative correspondent for NPR.