Minutes before the jury delivered their verdict convicting a former Minneapolis police officer for the murder of George Floyd, another police officer in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Ma’Khia joins Adam Toledo (13), Anthony Thompson (17), Iremamber Sykap (16), and Anthony Bernal Cano (17) on the list of children who have been killed by the police since the new year began, which includes at least five in the past month alone. Add to that the dozens of children who have been killed by police in the past decade and we have reason to be concerned about the sanctity of American childhood.
Executing children is considered barbaric, uncivilized, and inhumane all over the world. Four international agreements prohibit the practice—even for children who are involved in violent crimes. Our own Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute children for crimes they committed before they were 18. With advances in developmental research, we now know more than ever about why teenagers make impulsive, irresponsible, and sometimes dangerous choices, like carrying a gun, riding in a stolen car, or grabbing a knife to ward off a potential threat. But since most of us believe that children can and will mature with time and support, we treat them with grace and forgiveness. We don’t beat them, tase them, pepper-spray them, put them in chokeholds, body slam them, or sic dogs on them. We certainly don’t kill them. But the persistent examples of police killing Black and brown children raises the question: Who is entitled to the grace of childhood?
On Tuesday, Ma’Khia Bryant was shot to death by an officer who reportedly wanted to prevent her from stabbing another girl with a knife. The officers arrived on the scene with little information about how the altercation started, who was in danger, and who was at fault. Video released by the Columbus Police Department shows that the officer shot Ma’Khia within seconds of exiting his car. The scene appeared chaotic for everyone, including Ma’Khia, a distressed teenager who had little time to comprehend the officer’s inquiries, understand who he was talking to, and comply with his demands. The officer responded with lethal force—not his Taser, pepper spray, or a tackle.
Of course, the facts in Ma’Khia’s case are still unfolding, and we only have a short clip of the incident. No doubt, the police want us to slow down, resist snap judgments, and evaluate this shooting independently of all the others. But this is exactly what the police should be doing every time they each encounter a child. Yes, every one of these shootings is different, but several themes emerge across them all, and it is not too early to conclude that most police killings involving children can be avoided.
First, race matters. We don’t have to rely on anecdotes and high-profile cases. Data confirms that a higher percentage of Black and Hispanic people experience police threats or use of force than white people. Black and Hispanic youth, in particular, are significantly more likely to experience force and die at the hands of police than white youth. These disparities may be explained by simulated experiments showing that the implicit dehumanization of Black people is a significant predictor of racial disparities in police use of force against children.
Age also matters. Police are more likely to use or threaten to use force in their interactions with younger people than adults. And they are significantly more likely to shoot an unarmed, nonattacking teenager than an adult. Unarmed teenagers are nearly five times more likely to be shot to death by police than similarly nonattacking middle-aged people. Unfortunately, far too many officers don’t know how to engage with adolescents, and police departments rarely provide the right training for these encounters. Even school resources officers lack adequate training on the teen brain and childhood trauma.
Third, speed matters. When police act under extreme time pressure, with limited information, in what appear to be risky situations, they are more likely to default to deeply embedded stereotypes and assumptions that associate Black people with crime. Police routinely rely on the “split-second decision” as a defense to all police shootings, but not every encounter is or has to involve a split-second decision. In Chicago, police pursued Adam Toledo because they saw him standing near a 21-year-old who fired a weapon at a passing car. When the officer chased him, he didn’t know if Adam was an armed and active participant or an unwitting or coerced observer. I wonder if, when, and how long the officer needed to follow Adam through an alley in the dark of night. With the prevalence of body-worn cameras and public and private security equipment, I wonder how hard it would have been for the police to capture Adam’s image, gather more information, and locate him shortly thereafter without the immediate chase. Even with the pursuit, the prosecutor’s initial claim that Adam was holding a gun when he was shot proved false in the body camera footage. As is almost always the case when children are shot by police, the split-second decision was the wrong one.
We have a lot of work to do to change the way we police children. That work must also include real policy changes that drastically limit the use of force with children and require police departments to collaborate with developmental experts to understand adolescence and learn how to deescalate their encounters with youth. Most important, this work must start by remembering that Black and Hispanic children are children too.
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