In August, 22-year-old John Crawford was gunned down by Ohio police in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, outside of Dayton. Police were responding to a call reporting a man waving a rifle in the store. Just this past Saturday in Cleveland, Ohio, an officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice after responding to a call reporting a male with a gun outside a recreational center. Both John and Tamir turned out to be carrying toy guns. John was carrying a gun he had picked up in the toy gun aisle in the store, and from the Walmart surveillance video released from the incident, it appears that he was merely checking out the toy while talking on his cell phone. Tamir was carrying a bb-gun from home. The orange safety cap that was supposed to indicate that it was a toy had been removed. Police in both cases argued that they could not distinguish the toy guns from real ones. The problem is, Ohio is an open carry state, so even if the guns had been real, it would have been legal for John to carry his as long as he had a permit and, though Tamir was underage, the officer that shot him reported believing that he was around 20 years old (a ridiculous claim when you see how baby-faced Tamir was, and a claim reflective of the perceived aging of Black children to rationalize suspicion of them, but that’s a conversation for another essay) so, from the officer’s point of view, Tamir very well could have been old enough to have a permit as well. But police engaged with neither of them to determine whether that was the case. They fired immediately upon arriving at the scene, in Tamir’s case, less than two seconds after exiting their vehicle.
Officers’ responses to John and Tamir contrast starkly the responses of officers to armed and dangerous suspects in a number of recent cases, such as James Holmes in the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012 and, more recently, the manhunt for cop-killer Eric Frein in Pennsylvania. In the Aurora case, 25-year-old Holmes entered a movie theater armed with four guns: an AR-15 rifle, a 12-guage shotgun, and two .40 caliber handguns, and 600 rounds of ammunition. After murdering 12 people and shooting 58 others, Holmes exited the building to police officers who engaged him verbally, persuaded him to surrender, and successfully apprehended and arrested him without any shots fired on the part of officers. The weeks-long manhunt for 31-year-old Frein, who murdered a state trooper and seriously injured another, too, ended with his surrender through verbal persuasion. Police described Frein as a “survivalist” and “armed and dangerous,” and as they traced him through the woods, they found three rifles including one AK-47, two fully-functional pipe bombs, ammunition, and military gear belonging to him. Frein was unarmed when apprehended but, nonetheless, officers approached him with far more restraint than officers did John and Tamir, who had not been reported to have injured anyone at all.
The differences in police’s approach to suspects in each of these cases beg the question: why, in a state in which the right to openly carry real guns is sanctioned by law, have two individuals within the past three months been killed by police for carrying openly what turned out to be toys, especially when officers have demonstrated that – as they are trained to do – it is completely possible to engage with, disarm, and apprehend suspects without using any force at all? The answer: because John and Tamir were Black; James and Eric were White.
Differences in stereotypes associated with Black people and White people influence how officers approach individuals of different races in their encounters with them. In the mainstream, Black people, men in particular, are seen as aggressive, violent, dangerous, and criminal. These are the images of Black men we see paraded across our television screens daily in newscasts and TV shows. However, White people are not seen in this light; by contrast, they are seen largely as peaceful, law-abiding citizens. So when Black people commit violent acts, according to the mainstream, it is to be expected. But when White people do the same, as in the cases of James Holmes and Eric Frein, the perpetrators are seen as anomalies, persons who almost certainly can and should be engaged with and dissuaded from continuing or initiating the violent acts which they likely would not be prone to under different circumstances. Unarmed Black people are judged more likely to be dangerous just by virtue of their color; so put a gun in their hands, and that sentiment is heightened. Put a weapon in the hands of someone assumed to be dangerous, and it will be further assumed that they have that weapon for offensive purposes, or, to use in a crime. They become even more of a threat than usual, and even more in need of neutralization. But put one in the hands of someone assumed to be a law-abiding citizen, and it will be further assumed that that individual has their weapon for defensive purposes. When these assumptions are made by law enforcement, they produce the differing outcomes that resulted for John Crawford and Tamir Rice, and James Holmes and Eric Frein. The latter had already demonstrated that they were dangerous, and still, police approached them with the intention of diffusing the situation peacefully. And that’s what they did. But to the officers that approached John Crawford and Tamir Rice, John and Tamir were already more likely than not to be violent, so when they arrived at the scene, they took no chances in letting either of them carry out the violent acts which they had already been assumed to be plotting. These officers weren’t the first to make such hasty judgments, and they won’t be the last.
There needs to be an open and honest dialogue in the political discourse about the role that unconscious racial biases play in the disproportionate number of killings that result for African Americans in encounters with law enforcement. It is unfathomable that persons equipped with assault weapons and bombs can make it out of encounters with law enforcement alive, but individuals carrying toys cannot. As much as some like to deny it, there is overwhelming research that indicates that implicit and unconscious racial biases do exist and are prevalent in the American public, and they do influence how people interact with one another. Police officers are not exempt from these biases, and we should not pretend that they are. On the contrary, we should pursue changes to police training, racial profiling policies, and other policies that govern how police are and are not allowed to engage with members of the public. John Crawford and Tamir Rice did not need to die, but there was nothing that could have saved them from the officers’ biases – not their right to carry guns, nor the fact that they weren’t real. But we can prevent more Johns and more Tamirs by talking about that thing we don’t like to talk about – race. Until we are willing to have that conversation, no progress can be made on these issues, and more lives will be needlessly lost. We can fix this problem, and everyone can contribute. All it takes is a conversation. The time to have that conversation is now.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.