In 1983, Los Angeles police officer Anthony Sperl shot and killed 5 year-old Patrick Andrew Mason when the child pointed a toy gun at him in a dimly-lit bedroom. The case became an instant cultural touchstone and dramatic cliché, reenacted in every cop show, and forming crucial backstory for Sgt. Al Powell in Die Hard. “When you’re a rookie, they can teach you everything about being a cop except how to live with a mistake,” Powell tells fellow cop John McClane, a typical harnessing of this mythology to create empathy for the tough decisions cops have to make. The narrative also came to symbolize a public intent on “second-guessing” cops, and departments that hung them out to dry in the process. Sperl, years later, recounted how he was “forced to wear his blood-soaked uniform for five hours during his interrogation.”
A little more than 30 years later, that mythology endures, but the reality has changed in some dramatic ways. In the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, the Cleveland Police Department has released video of another police shooting, of 12 year-old Tamir Rice. A caller to 911 told the police operator that Rice was pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it a people, but also said the gun was “probably fake,” and that Rice was “probably a juvenile,” although it appears the dispatcher did not pass this information on to the officers.
In the seven-minute surveillance video, you can see the caller in the gazebo at the beginning of the tape, as Rice plays with what turned out to be a pellet gun in the foreground. Six minutes later, the police show up, and almost instantly, Rice is shot twice, mortally wounded:
The officer who shot Rice, 26 year-old rookie Timothy Loehmann, says he told Rice twice to put up his hands, and that he fired when Tamir “reached” for the toy gun. In a press conference following the shooting, Deputy Chief Edward Tomba said that Rice made no “verbal threats,” and there was no “physical confrontation.”
The decision to release the video, at the parents’ request, has escalated public outrage over the shooting, as the video seems to show that Rice never really had a chance to surrender. Occurring so close to the Michael Brown grand jury decision, and after months of death raining down on unarmed black people, Tamir Rice’s killing is properly being viewed as just another example of the razor’s edge on which black lives rest. There’s a sense that if Tamir Rice had been white, he’d still be alive today.
That sounds like a snap judgment against a rookie cop who made a split-second decision, and indeed, research and statistics suggest that it’s quite possible that race may have played a part in the decision to shoot so quickly. Police are 21 times more likely to shoot black teens than white teens, according to a Pro Publica report, while research on implicit bias has found that race is a factor in the decision to shoot, although one study found those biases weaker in police officers than in ordinary citizens. That’s cold comfort to begin with, and even colder when you factor in our burgeoning Stand Your Ground culture.
Anecdotally, so does the similar story of John Crawford, who was shot by police for carrying a pellet gun in a store that sells pellet guns, in a state where it’s legal to open-carry real guns, and who was apparently shot while laying the weapon down. Like Tamir Rice, a 911 caller alerted police, but in a key difference, Crawford’s witness told the operator that he was pointing the gun at people and appeared to be loading the gun, neither of which were evident from the surveillance video. The caller in the Rice video, on the other hand, told the dispatcher that the gun was “probably fake,” but that information was not given to the officers, who were only told of “a guy sitting on the swings, pointing a gun at people.”
As part of the federal toy gun law that was passed in 1988 requiring the orange cap that was missing from Tamir’s toy, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study on toy gun incidents, and found five factors that contributed to the decision whether to shoot. Here’s the first factor they listed:
The Nature of the Call Dispatch. The information given to the officer from the dispatcher, the tone of the dispatcher’s voice, and the locale of the call can all contribute to both heightened awareness and heightened stress inferring a life-threatening incident at the call.
We will never know if the dispatcher could have saved Tamir Rice’s life by relaying the caller’s doubts about the gun. It’s possible the officer would still have shot as quickly, it’s possible he wouldn’t have. Neither possibility removes race from the equation, nor places it in the equation. It is too soon, and unfair, to judge this officer’s motives under such complex circumstances. It’s also unnecessary. The raft of killings of people of color are probable cause to examine the trend, as are, more specifically, toy weapon incidents like the Crawford shooting, and others.
In September, Darrien Hunt was shot in the back as he fled police with a decorative sword slung over his shoulder and behind his back, and in January, 23 year-old Rocendo Arias was shot dead in his car by a Yakima, Wash. cop because he had a partially disassembled airsoft pellet gun on the seat next to him. Incidents like these stretch back through the years, including one night in 1994 when two black kids were shor in separate toy gun incidents within blocks of each other.
Almost exactly a year before Rice’s shooting, in October of 2013, another toy gun incident took the life of 13 year-old Andy Cruz, a California teenager who was carrying a partially-translucent airsoft pellet gun that resembled an AK-47, and was also missing the orange plastic marking. The Lopez shooting stirred outrage because witnesses said he was shot as he turned toward the officer, as several bullet wounds in his side suggested, and because the officer wasn’t even sure, himself, if he identified himself as a police officer. Stop me if this sounds familiar, but authorities also released a report showing that Lopez may have smoked marijuana prior to being shot. The officer who shot Andy Lopez, Deputy Erick Gelhaus, was not charged.
Of course, black people aren’t the only ones shot for having toy guns, and white cops aren’t the only shooters. On November 16, 2013, a white 14 year-old named Nicholas King was shot in Michigan while allegedly reaching for what turned out to be a replica handgun. One of King’s friends said he was putting his hands up when he was shot, while the officer said he was reaching for it. The dashcam video doesn’t really settle that question, but the reaction time is very similar:
King survived the incident, and Officer Esteban Rivera was cleared in the shooting by the local prosecutor a month later. Call it the exception that proves the rule, if you like, but I think it’s indicative of something else. The cop who shot Andy Lopez, Erick Gelhaus, was also a firearms expert who once shot himself in the leg while holstering his weapon, wrote extensively for law enforcement magazines. In 2008, he wrote about what he tells his trainees:
Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home.
Law enforcement is a contact sport and optimally it should be a team sport.
Somebody needs to be in charge, so make a decision.
“Mindset is going to be a common thread. If you cannot turn on the “Mean Gene” for yourself, who will? If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone, you need to turn on that mean gene.”
“Taking some kind of action—any kind of action—is critical.”
There has been a shift in acceptable police attitudes, from Sperl’s remorseful pop culture archetype, to the one described above, and echoed in Darren Wilson’s insistence that he wouldn’t do anything differently. One of the running themes of Wilson’s testimony was his split-second meditations on the “Use of Force Triangle,” and what is clear from that testimony is that the corners of that triangle served as a finish line for Wilson, rather than as a decision point. Once the conditions allowing deadly force were met, deadly force became the only option.
The mindset that Gelhaus describes is one in which every citizen is a potential threat, and it’s one which was on brilliant display for the rest of America during the Ferguson protests this summer. As Nicholas King’s story illustrates, the knife’s edge of police zeal that has cut short so many black lives occasionally cuts white people, too, but it has been honed, for decades, on black communities.
That’s why even if you fairly grant the officer who shot Tamir Rice a racially pure head and heart, race is still a major factor in his death. Here’s the second factor that Bureau of Justice Statistics report lists in the decision to shoot in imitation gun incidents:
Expectations of the Officer. Based on the information received from the dispatcher, knowledge of problems in the area, nature of the neighborhood, observations of the officer enroute to the call. and a wide range of other experiential factors, the officer develops defined expectations of what might be encountered at the scene of the call. Usually, as a safety factor, the “worst case scenario” is expected.
Even if you grant that in this case, none of the implicit biases that are broadly observable were factors, Rice was undeniably part of an overpoliced community. Wherever cops’ heads are at when they hit the streets, it will always be black people who disproportionately feel the consequences of that. If police policy shifts to giving everyone they stop a dollar, black people will be the first to rake it in, but until then, they’ll reap the “mean gene.”