The federal government doesn't track how often or what happens when police shoot civilians, and there's no official national database to show how big or complex the problem is.
Journalist Ben Montgomery said he learned a lot by requesting documents from more than 400 jurisdictions in Florida alone. In six years and more than 800 shootings, not one incident resulted in criminal charges.
Montgomery is an award-winning reporter for the Tampa Bay Times whose investigative piece “Why Cops Shoot” was published earlier this year. He spoke to host and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris for this week's episode of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice podcast.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID HARRIS: Your reporting, which went from 2009 to 2014, you found that 827 people were shot by Florida police in those years. Why? Who were these people getting shot?
BEN MONTGOMERY: About 41 percent were black, 40 percent were white, 20 percent were Hispanic and the remaining ethnicities. Many of them, it turns out, were unarmed. About one-fifth, 156 out of 827 people, were unarmed. No weapon, no knife, no vehicle that can be used as a weapon.
HARRIS: Did they all die?
MONTGOMERY: Just about half were fatal. Out of 827 shootings, 454 were fatal.
HARRIS: Who were the officers who shot these civilians? What incidents were occurring? What was going on that the officers felt justified in shooting someone?
MONTGOMERY: The officers, to a tee, were able to claim -- many of them, well all of them, save one -- were able to claim and prove that they were in legitimate fear for their lives, that they were facing danger that would cause death or great bodily harm to themselves or other citizens.
HARRIS: How many of these police officers who shot civilians in that period eventually faced any criminal charges?
MONTGOMERY: Only one in 827 shootings. Only one faced criminal charges. And after his indictment, he used the Florida law known as "Stand Your Ground" law, which is a defense used many times by citizens themselves to have the charges dismissed. So there have been no charges in any of the 827 shootings that we have looked at that are actually stuck legally.
HARRIS: You lead your article with the story of a young man named Rodney Mitchell. Tell us about him.
MONTGOMERY: Rodney Mitchell was a 23-year-old college graduate who was tooling around his hometown of Sarasota, Fla., in June of 2012 when he was pulled over by two white police officers who in the course of a 41-second traffic stop fired four bullets at him. One hit him in the left temple and killed him. Rodney was unarmed, had no reason to assault the police, had been taught to follow the police directions. And in many ways, it was a senseless killing that his mother is still trying to come to terms with.
HARRIS: But the officer who killed Rodney Mitchell didn't face any criminal charges, and in fact, most of them don't face any criminal charges. Isn't that right?
MONTGOMERY: Yes sir. Criminal charges are very rare. In fact, we found that you're more likely to be charged as police officer in the state of Florida if you shoot and miss than if you are if you shoot and hit your target. The cop in the Rodney Mitchell case was legally justified in using deadly force even after a federal lawsuit was filed by Rodney Micthell's mother.
HARRIS: Now I can hear a police officer saying in the background right now, "Oh, it's easy for a civilian to tell us to slow down. We're facing situations that develop incredibly rapidly with life or death in the balance." How would you respond to that?
MONTGOMERY: They have a very difficult job to do. That's for sure. But police practitioners, people who've been in the field for a very long while, I think that there is room for improvement, both in the training and in the way in which we understand these police shootings and how they unfold. "Slow down," they say. "Take more time to understand the situation. And again, don't put yourself in harm's way. Be quicker to find cover, to stay out of harm's way, to prevent your own injury or death and hopefully prevent the loss of life among other people."
Criminal Injustice is an independent podcast recorded and produced in partnership with 90.5 WESA. Find more at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.