It has been more than two months since that awful week in July when two separate police shootings of black men—one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the other outside St. Paul, Minnesota—made national news and triggered widespread mourning and outrage among supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. While there have been a depressing number of police shootings since then—according to the Washington Post’s database, there have been 166 of them—none has attracted the kind of media attention that has propelled names like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald into the national consciousness.
That changed on Thursday morning, when news started to spread of a 13-year-old boy named Tyree King, who was shot by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio.
According to an official statement from the Columbus Division of Police, the teenager died on Wednesday night because he pulled out what looked like a firearm while being chased by two officers who suspected him of participating in a nearby armed robbery. It turned out that King was only armed with a BB gun. At a press conference Thursday, Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs showed a photo of a replica of the BB gun recovered at the scene and said, “Our officers carry a gun that looks practically identical to this weapon. … It turns out not to be a firearm, but as you can see, it looks like a firearm that can kill you.”
Details about what led to the fatal confrontation are still sketchy. But if the broad outlines of the police account are to be believed, police had received a call about an armed robbery involving a group of people, and according to the victim of the robbery, one of whom had a gun. It seems that King was nearby when officers arrived on the scene, and was walking in a group with two other people when police approached and determined that they fit the description of the robbery suspects they were seeking.
Update, Sept. 15, 2016, 4:58 p.m.: One of the friends King was with when he was approached by officers, 19-year-old Demetrius Braxton, has been interviewed by the Columbus Dispatch, and has confirmed that he and King had robbed someone.
According to the police account, King and one of the other people ran into an alley after the officers tried to speak to them, initiating a chase. When King took out of his waistband what police believed to be a gun, one of the officers, a nine-year veteran of the force named Brian Mason, fired multiple shots. King died at a hospital shortly thereafter.
Expect a lot of discussion in the coming days about whether taking a BB gun out of your waistband gives a police officer the right to use lethal force, and whether it changes the equation if the police officer believes it to be a real gun. There will likely also be questions about whether King actually did participate in a robbery, and whether that’s in any way relevant to evaluating the justice of what happened to him.