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Shots Fired: Part 1

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 03:00 AM

(Photo Credit: Bob B. Brown/Flickr)

A couple years ago, Ben Montgomery, reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, started emailing every police station in Florida.

He was asking for any documents created - from 2009 to 2014 - when an officer discharged his weapon in the line of duty. He ended up with a six foot tall stack of reports, pictures, and press clippings cataloging the death or injury of 828 people by Florida police. 

Jad and Robert talk to Ben about what he found, crunch some numbers, and then our reporter Matt Kielty takes a couple files off Ben's desk and brings us the stories inside them - from a network of grief to a Daytona police chief.

And next week, we bring you another, very different story of a police encounter gone wrong.

Produced and reported by Matt Kielty

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that in reporter Ben Montgomery's six years of Florida data there were, on average, 130 people shot and killed each year. Police offers did indeed shoot 130 people per year, on average, but only half of those shootings were fatal. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.


Krystal Brown, Mike Chitwood, Natasha Clemons and Ben Montgomery


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Comments [39]

David from Northern Ireland

This might be the episode that makes me unsubscribe. We're all used to Police being vilified, but this bias should not filter into Radiolab reporting. You should be above that.

I sincerely hope this is rectified in part 2.

Mar. 24 2017 07:12 AM
Walter Sobchak

Of course Jad & Robert know that the crime demographics in Florida don't match the population demographics - but their narrative is not directed at those who have a basic understanding of statistics & are capable of making that distinction.

Mar. 23 2017 11:42 PM

I've been a Radiolab fan FOREVER. Fell in love with your Sperm episode. But this episode at 48:00 minutes was disgusting. This was bad and insensitive reporting. This woman, mother, just described how her son was killed and you wanna man-splain to her how most cops are good? That was horribly horribly insensitive. I hope you issue her an apology.

Mar. 23 2017 03:19 PM
DB from San Diego

Epic fail of an episode. One-dimensional and one-sided against police (of whom I am no particular fan). Assumes that every single police shooting was unjustified without any description of the surrounding circumstances, much less the cop's point of view. Of course there are unjustified shootings based on race; far too many. But that's no excuse to trumpet unjustified statistics. For example, African-Americans are NOT 40 times more likely in general to be shot by police than whites (I think that was the multiple quoted). Only African-Americans who find themselves in circumstances where shots are fired are. And that usually happens only when the person shot puts themselves at risk, for example, by committing a violent felony or behaving dangerously on drugs. Again, we are all aware of the exceptions where the victim has done little or nothing to provoke the police's response. But it's a fact of life that, for reasons of institutional racism (economics, lousy schools, etc.), a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by African-Americans compared to whites. The problem of racism is pervasive enough without Radiolab carelessly distorting the facts and smugly presenting only one side of the story while acting like it's being even-handed.

Mar. 23 2017 03:12 PM
Brittany from Columbus OH

I thought this episode was very powerful. Thank you for sharing this story.

Mar. 23 2017 01:40 PM
Steve Shannon from California

Agree with many epic fail by Robert and Jad. So let me get this straight...they set up/ballyhoo the creation of a historic data base of cop shootings, then quickly conclude that it is too hard and complicated to understand, and does not fit their narrative, then move on to cherry pick a few sad stories. These sad stories are indeed horrible and hard to defend, but they totally lose the plot of the average story of the 160+ shootings per year. And they miss the 9th grade statistics fact. While AA's are 17% of the population and 40% of the shootings, what % are they of criminals? The causes of this criminality are deep and complex, and we can each share in the blame, but to not acknowledge this is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order.And BTW...any thought of showcasing one caucasian victim of police shooting, since they represent 60% of shootings?

Mar. 23 2017 12:03 AM
Damian Cooper from Sydney

Hi guys,

As someone outside the US it is hard for fathom the underlying issues that lead to stories like these.

One thing I am not clear on. It seems like most of these police shootings are predicated on the idea that the cops are fearful for their safety and as a result 'shoot first'.

My question is this, how many cops are shot by young black men during traffic stops?

The heart of my question is how real is the risk to the cops?

In Australia is unimaginable that a cop would shoot anyone during a routine traffic stop.

Mar. 22 2017 06:21 PM
Jim from Omaha

Yeah I agree the old podcasts were great but radio lab has really gone down hill.

Mar. 22 2017 11:42 AM
Robert T from Omaha, NE

Its not a bad episode and it brings up some good points, but I'm a bit sad after listening. It seems to me that the science focused RadioLab that I grew to LOVE and donate money to has passed on. In the last 18 months the show has seemingly become just another public affairs podcast with very little to distinguish itself from 100's of other podcast on the net. I will listen to part 2, but after that I think I'll hit the 'unsubscribe' button on my Iphone and just occasionally check back and download any episodes hat involve science. I used to love RL, now I just kinda like it....sad really.

Mar. 22 2017 11:11 AM
Daryl t from Sydney

How did the best podcast available descend into a fact starved, immotive forum for social justice warriors?

Mar. 21 2017 09:59 PM
Dre from Monterey

I'm sorry radio lab, I didn't mean a new low. I have been amazed by the quality of all of your episodes. Except this one. Do a little research, you are talking about violent crimes and death against black people. How about you use Wikipedia and look up Sandra, I posted the Wikipedia above. You will see that she had 6 to 7 or whatever it says run-ins with the law owed six or $7000 , her bail was $500. Which her "Texas friend" ignore the bail bondsman, she was a known activist on police brutality, and from what I've read I believe she hung her self to be some kind of martyr. Then her mom gets a 1.9 million wrongful death settlement, so that's why she smiling making you breakfast. I can't even finish the episode. Disappointed.

Mar. 21 2017 08:45 PM
Dre from Monterey

Wow... 50.9 percent of the 40 percent black people shot were carrying a gun..... are you kidding radio lab.... this is Florida as well, Miami zombies Casey Anthony, Zimmerman.... so you saying black people in Florida... who by these numbers half are carrying a gun, or another 20 percent knives, so 70% of thes people running or brandishing a weapon at cops at one point.... this a new low for radiolab. Which is my favorite podcast. Please don't fall into this black lives matter bullshit. Because all lives matter. But don't act surprised... why not show some transparency... how many of the other people shot brandishing guns or knives.... I doubt 50%.... just wow

Mar. 21 2017 08:16 PM
mark from california

Doug from Albuquerque, NM you have no merit because you said this "you never noted the total # of violent crimes committed by black people. This is critical because it indicates the percentage of times the police interact with black residents where a pattern of violence and disdain for the law has already been established." the reason i say this because you assume that every one of those interaction with police was the black perosn was in the wrong giving the police the benefit of the and not the black person. because in your statement you used violence and disdain. topical racist excuse to justify killing blacks.

Mar. 21 2017 05:41 PM
Alison from NY

I was moved by the extreme vulnerability that so many of the family members shared with us in this episode. Ms. Clemons, I want to tell you, I wept with you and I was stunned by your bravery in letting us in to the rawness of your grief. I was shocked when Jad and Robert did not thank you by name at the end of the show. Thank you for being such a powerful witness to the devastation that our culture of police brutality and white ignorance has on real lives, real people.

Like others who've written, I'm a long time fan of RadioLab who was truly disappointed by the tone-deafness that Matt displayed in his interpretation of Ms. Clemons' grief. I actually could not believe I was hearing him say those words, when he asked if she ever put herself in the mind of the two police officers who killed her child. How could anyone think to ask a parent that so quickly after that parent has learned those officers have taken her child with impunity? And what possibly could she or we, your listeners, hope to gain from hearing Matt noodle on in apologia, essentially: "not all police"? That was an exploitative low point, quickly followed by ending the episode without thanking the family members who exposed themselves so bravely, by name.

I'm really hoping the surprise next episode is Matt, in a spray tan, interacting with the police. Not because I want him harmed, but because I don't understand why Radiolab chose to air that clumsy "interview" unless it was in preparation for Matt to put himself on the line in such a way. Otherwise why not at least acknowledge that gulf he pondered is due in large part to white guys having no idea what it means to walk so vulnerably in the world.

Mar. 21 2017 02:32 PM
Cotie Jones from Washington, DC

As an African American middle-aged man (rarer than you might think), a father of a black boy (and 2 girls) and native Floridian, thank you for this superlative, well-done story. I was especially captivated by the disagreement between the bereaved mother and the story author on whether bad intent played a role in her son's murder, and her belief that his perspective might change, if he were "Black Like Me." I would love to know if that question had an effect on his belief.

Mar. 21 2017 12:38 PM
Nathan from Georgia

A few of the comments below assert that the number of police shootings of African Americans can be justified on the grounds that African Americans commit a disproportionate share of violent crimes, and so they are more likely to encounter police in violent circumstances.

This perspective assumes that we actually know who commits violent crimes. Since the role of the criminal justice system is to ascertain this, we cannot take it for granted.

The hypothesis that African Americans commit more crimes, and are therefore more likely to be shot by police, is consistent with the data. It is not implied by the data. Another hypothesis is that they are more likely to be targeted for investigation and conviction, or for unnecessary arrest, due to *unconscious* bias on the part of witnesses, officers, attorneys, judges, and jurors. This hypothesis is also consistent with the data, and it is unfortunately also consistent with American history.

I suspect the real situation is more complex than either story fully conveys. Regardless, I hope that going forward we can repeal unjust laws and find more peaceful ways of enforcing just laws.

Mar. 21 2017 11:52 AM
Jim from Omaha

The real problem in this country is Overcriminalization. The U.S. is 5% of the worlds population but we are 20% of the worlds prison population. We have more of our population locked up than any other country on the face of the planet.

Mar. 21 2017 11:35 AM
TJ from CA

Thank you to all involved for this reporting & program. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Let's hope more people hear it & learn... Not judge... Not second guess the "whys" of an action... Just learn.

Mar. 21 2017 01:24 AM

Ms. Sandra, why in the world did you just not put OUT your cigarette and get OUT of the car? I don't understand!

Mar. 20 2017 03:16 PM
Cicero from Miami

and another yesterday:

Mar. 20 2017 08:52 AM
Eric from American living in the UK

Listening to your show the number of killings sounded so unbelievable I decided to try putting them in perspective. Using the Washington Post police shootings database and Wikipedia numbers for fire-arm related deaths this is what I found:

Police in America kill more people per capita than all gun related deaths (homicide, suicide, and accidental) in the United Kingdom, India, Poland, Singapore, Qatar, Romania, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.

If you look at just homicides the list expands to include 29 countries including most of Europe.

That's pretty shocking. US police are more deadly than all criminals, mentally unstable, gangsters, or however else people like to explain away shootings, in many parts of the world. But when you consider nearly all police killings are ruled to be legal and justified you have to wonder if police shootings are just a symptom of a much bigger issue in the way we've built our society.

Mar. 20 2017 06:57 AM
c3p from Germany

I know you love your guns and all that, but as a european: Police probably would be a lot more relaxed if not everybody could get out a hidden handgun at every Moment.
...just sayin

Mar. 19 2017 04:40 PM
Cameron Brooks

I really appreciate this story, but cannot shake a looming unanswered question that arises at the very beginning of the show: Exactly WHY are there no national database or records on shooting (but there are on other incidents)? I've heard reporting and allegations to the effect that laws passed by congress restrict and prohibit agencies such as FBI, CDC and other from compiling this information. This seems both deeply relevant to the story and a perfect thing for RadioLab to bring some clarity and illumination.

Mar. 19 2017 01:34 PM
LD from On the Road

Yet another mansplaining about how women "have fun" expressing their grief. Really Radiolab?! You can do better. Get some women covering these types of stories if you can't get it right.

Mar. 19 2017 12:32 PM
Allyson from Ontario, Canada

I am very disappointed with this episode. I felt that Matt Kielty, Robert and Jad displayed a real lack of compassion and imagination in the portrayal of and reaction to people who lost their loved ones to police shootings. Is it really so hard to believe that these mothers have connected with each other and become close friends? That they became the 'mothers of the movement'? That people who are bullied by police see police as bullies? These are all important facts, but I found the big pauses and *wow* (insert swelling music here) moments insensitive and offensive. It smacks of privilege and condescension. Come on, guys--you can do better than this.

Mar. 19 2017 07:49 AM
Truss from Philadelphia

Guys. This is Radiolab. The beauty of Radiolab is that when you're halfway through the story - and we are, which is why this is called "Shots Fired: Part 1" - you're pretty sure you already knew all this stuff. And maybe you want to argue about how it's being presented or just think you already have all necessary facts and the show is redundant. And then at some point during the second half they take it further or change direction or just totally surprise you. And then you think, "Well played, RK & JA. You clever beasts. Never saw that twist coming!"

Anyway if you don't want to take my word for it, here's the brief description of Part 2 from the podcast page:

"And next week, we bring you another, *very different* story of a police encounter gone wrong."

Stars(*) added for emphasis.

Mar. 19 2017 07:33 AM

I'm sorry, but looking at the 17% of African American population in Florida and extrapolating that 40% of people shot are African American is wrong.

Here's a scenario, you have a restaurant and are trying to determine how many dishes are broken by the dish washing team separated by race.
If you want to know which racial group in the team brakes the most dishes you can't poll from the entire population of restaurant workers because it will tell you nothing about the team, you must divide the dish washers by race and then calculate the percentages.
Just like in this case you have to look poll of people who commit crimes divide that by race and then start extrapolating (and even there you can subdivide further to violent crimes etc.).

The worst part is that this is such an obvious mistake that it is hard to put to simple error.

Radiolab please stop lying to your listeners.

Mar. 19 2017 01:57 AM
Rico from midwest

As a police officer I am glad you are talking about this issue. I have chosen to work in internal affairs. I judge actual uses of force every day. I could feel you trying to be as fair as possible, but the slant of the story still was anti-police. It is hard to balance out grieving mothers so I expected that. My biggest concern was with your ending note that police are bullies who don't care about consequences and purposefully kill the innocent. That could not be further from the truth. Police officers today are afraid of losing their jobs at every incident. The last thing 99% of officers want to do is use their guns. Only in the last few years did I have to start citing officers for NOT using force (sometimes causing other officers to be hurt because of their inaction). Police officers are growing more afraid to act and intervene. You will see the results more and more of police inaction.

Being in internal affairs, I see the problems with officers, such as being reluctant to criticize each other. But widespread racism and homicidal behavior is simply not there. White officers are relieved when they use force on a white subject because the scrutiny is far less. I'm also amazed how everyone who thinks white police are racist forget about all the minority police officers that have to make these same difficult decisions in split second situations. There are no statistics showing white officers kill more black people than minority officers do.

Police kill around 1,000 people are year. Roughly 800 of those are completely fine. Around 200 are good shoots, but better tactics could have had a CHANCE to change the outcome. Then there are a dozen or so left that are bad shoots. That is MINUSCULE compared the number of contacts citizens have with police every year. This is not a widespread problem and trying to blow it way out of proportion (causing hysteria, riots, police hatred) does not make society safer or more peaceful.

Mar. 18 2017 09:08 PM
Garrett from Brooklyn

This episode blew me away. I was moved, intrigued, shocked, educated.... keep up the amazing work.

Mar. 18 2017 06:43 PM
CC from Endicott, NY

Just listened to this episode. I was very interested because I am an activist whose main cause is ending the drug war. As you can imagine when studying this issue I cringe at how unfairly our criminal justice system is meted out toward black and poor communities. I recently read something about the first thing the cop that killed Michael Brown said to MB and his friend as he rolled up on them
...his first interaction with those young men that day was to tell them to "get the f on the sidewalk".....?! To me, that is why MB is dead. The cop could have handled that situation with humor and/or respect for who he was talking to, but instead he chose to humiliate and shame young men who are at age that testosterone flows at the highest human levels through their veins. I then thought about an upper middle class suburb not too far from where I live. People walk and jog in that area quite often and I tried to imagine a cop driving through that area telling people to "get the f on the sidewalk" and realize something like that would only happen in my imagination, because a cop would probably be fired if he did that more than once. The deeper I dig into the prison industrial complex, the more I see slavery never ended in this country. I often tell my friend if I were a black man, I'd be very scared to leave the house. I do think poor communities in general are targeted by the police state, and upper and middle classes are pretty much ignored (even though statistics say drug use is exactly even regardless of race or social class). A couple other things I'd like to share is 1. A great documentary related to the prison industrial complex (13th) 2. A database of people killed by cops, and unlike what you reported early in this podcast, I'm seeing a definite increase in these events:
Unfortunately, I don't have much optimism for America right now. I do believe most of the population outside of the elite are enslaved by the state; if not in body, in mind. People seem only to fight about which party is violently controlling them, instead of focusing on the fact that they are being violently controlled. Thanks for the great podcast.

Mar. 18 2017 12:13 PM
Cicero from Miami

Mar. 18 2017 09:35 AM

Very interesting show as always Radiolab... However I am hoping that part 2 looks at this from the other side of police shootings.

Please strike out and tell the story rarely told. The story about the families of police officers. From personal experience I can tell you it's a whole other world of emotions. Specifically the death threats aimed at officers involved in shootings that were or weren't justified.

Mar. 17 2017 05:55 PM
Adonté from Atlanta

This episode has completely misrepresented to circumstances of the police arrest of Sandra Bland. Very deceptive and selective editing on the audio from the day of the arrest was used in this episode. Radio Lab is not being honest.
In the full Sandra Bland audio she was the aggressor being very Rude, foul mouthed and extremely disrespectful to the officer. She caused her own arrest like so many others do.
Her death days later is a tragedy and should have never happened.
In the full audio the officer tried to talk reason with her just offering a written warningfor majority of their encounter.
I have link the full audio and video below. See and listen for yourself.

Mar. 17 2017 04:01 PM

This episode has completely misrepresented to circumstances of police shooting. Selective editing on the Sandra Bland audio from the day of the arrest was used in this episode. Radio Lab is not or being honest. In the full Sandra Bland audio she was most definitely the aggressor.
Search for full audio and hear for yourself.

Mar. 17 2017 03:47 PM
Melinda from NY

I really appreciate this episode and the reminder, amidst the political tumult that is currently consuming so much of our public discourse, that there is so much important work yet to be done on the issue of implicit bias in policing.

However, I felt compelled to comment due to Ben's discussion with Natasha at the end of the program about seeing the other side of the issue, cops having good intentions but making bad decisions, not wanting to "bully" people. While I agree with the general premise Ben posits, setting aside the notion of the proportion of "good" vs. "bad" cops within the police force, I think ignoring the presence of police officers with bad intentions is a mistake, and a hurtful one. I found it particularly striking in light of the story we heard just prior concerning Natasha's son, which dripped of abuse of power to my ears. Pulling the young man over on a bogus seat belt charge? Calling him "boy," which is demeaning to any man and also racially-charged in this context? And the audio of the Sandra Bland arrest is similarly disturbing for the power trip that that officer seems to be operating under.

I am a white woman, just to be clear, so I have not been subjected personally to such treatment, but I don't understand why Ben seems to be blind to the clear subtext of at least some of these incidents. Given that subtext, it felt like an obtuse and cruel question to ask of this grieving mother, to stand in the shoes of a "good" cop. I hope she knows that there are white people who understand that some police officers really are bullies, regardless of whether we personally experienced that bullying. Eradicating the system of such officers is an important problem to tackle, no matter how widespread.

Mar. 17 2017 01:49 PM
Charles Peden from Omaha NE

Totally in love with the Daytona police force now. Really brilliant and true heroes!

Mar. 17 2017 11:53 AM
Doug from Albuquerque, NM

I appreciated the effort put into this reporting but thought that some critical information was ignored.

While the total police shootings of black men as a percentage of the total was noted (~40% of shootings were of black people whereas their % of the population was much less), you never noted the total # of violent crimes committed by black people. This is critical because it indicates the percentage of times the police interact with black residents where a pattern of violence and disdain for the law has already been established.

The state of Florida publishes crime statistics by race available right now from 1998-2015. From this one can see that the total number of police shootings is on part with what one would expect, perhaps even a little low, given the percentage of violent crimes which involve black people. In the second link, I have added a tab to an excel table which totals the crime stats across all years.
http :// cms/FSAC/Data-Statistics/UCR-Arrest-Data.aspx
https :// goo dot gl / 870auQ
(remove spaces, replace dot with a period)

Murder 53%
Forcible Sex Offenses 35%
Robbery 58%
Aggravated Assault 42%
Burglary 36%
Larceny/Theft 33%
Motor Vehicle Theft 46%


Regarding the officers' statement about people with gun permits being good people, I would never assume that if I was a cop. I'm a gun owner and the vast majority of my friends are as well. I have taught my kids what my friends all practice when carrying. When pulled over one needs to place one's hands on the steering wheel, inform the cop of that one has a concealed weapon's permit and gun nearby, and ask him/her how to proceed. This tells the officer not only that one has a gun but that one wants to co-operate in a non-threatening manner, and it's just common sense. Telling an officer that you have a gun and then reaching for your back pocket when he is screaming at you to put your hands on the wheel is a very threatening action. The right to bear arms (especially in a concealed manner) comes with extreme responsibilities due to the inherent danger and purpose of weapons. Making sure police know that you don't pose a danger to them is one of those responsibilities.

Mar. 17 2017 11:48 AM
Riley P from West Tennessee

Brian, I came here to see what others might be saying about this episode and I am so glad to see an individual who really tries to understand rather than blindly jump to one side or the other. I whole heartily agree with you. There is context of these cases that is either breezed by or simply not addressed, and I think that can be a big mistake. I am not saying this to say what happened to these victims was right or they "deserved' it, but reporting should tell both sides equally. I believe 100% there is corruption in law enforcement but more on the side of what you said with not pushing the officer to the level that anyone else would. I believe the process of becoming a police officer should also be looked into and made a little more difficult. That being said I think this is important to discuss but this episode felt a little one sided.

Mar. 17 2017 11:10 AM
Brian from boise, id

I honestly had a very hard time with this episode. Before I start: I am a firm believer in aggregating data on police shootings and I am certain that body cams are necessary in improving policing. Added to that, I very liberal on most fronts, certainly a far cry from any Trump supporter. There are inevitably going to be police abuse and violence. Cases like Philando Castile are prime examples of how police officers can be firmly in the wrong.

That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the anecdotal nature of these cases. When I see the Mothers of the Movement gain prominence I see this as creating a potentially toxic narrative.
1. You mentioned Sandra Bland. I believe this case can be an good example of how not to treat inmate check-ins and handle traffic stops. Casting doubt on the suicide however is venturing into the area of outright conspiracy. There is absolutely not evidence of this being anything other than suicide. In fact, Sandra wrote in her Booking Form that she had a recent suicide attempt. The family won a lawsuit against the County for this very reason. Please, please, please do not encourage conspiratorial behavior, this will only breed further distrust and divide. Sandra's inclusion in this discussion is even less toxic than that of Trayvon Martin, however, because Martin (who certainly was an emotional and tragic death) did not at all die at the hands of law enforcement and yet is constantly thrown into this discussion.
2. I have an issue with your portrayal of the Rodney Mitchell shooting. You described this scenario "Rodney, who was twenty three years old, was back from college and was driving his car". I will not assume ill intent in your reporting but I really want to take issue with the exclusion of Rodney's DUI conviction. Days earlier he had been told he cannot keep driving on a suspended license under threat of escalated consequences. I reference this, not to impune his name, but to give the case context. With this context in mind, his alleged failure to comply doesn't seem illogical (similar motivation as Marlin Brown). This does not negate the polices actions but it is very important to understanding their claims. Further, you really should bring up the third party forensic analysis that corroborated the deputy's claims. I realize this is a lot more detail than you might want for a story like this but in the search of truth we really need to move past narratives and misrepresentation.
3. Finally, I love you guys. I honestly wish the next installment gets into something we don't often see in reporting of these shootings. You need really need a legal perspective. Part of the narrative is that cops are corruptly being let off the hook (something I am sure happens) but especially in these high profile cases this is simply not the case. There are clear guidelines for justified force. If there are laws that are allowing these instances, target them. A withdrawn and unemotional look doesn't make good radio but it is needed too.

Mar. 17 2017 09:36 AM

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