No More Police Killings of Children!

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Kids of color appear to be fair game for too many cops:

No More Police Killings of Children!

By Dave Lindorff

The latest police murder — and that’s what it was whatever the circumstances — of 16-old foster child Ma’Khia Bryant by a Columbus, Ohio cop, is sickening to watch.

No way did that officer,  Nicholas Reardon, have to kill that young teenage girl. Maybe she had a knife, and maybe she was even planning to try and stab or cut the girl or woman dressed in pink that she was running towards at the time of the shooting.  But the odds of such an injury being fatal with the small kitchen paring knife in her hand were not great.

Besides, there were other ways available to Officer Reardon to have stopped her. He, in particular, reportedly an Air  Force veteran and recipient of a marksman award.  At the distance he was standing away from Bryant, he clearly could have fired to wound and successfully stopped her knife attack (the mere fact that all four of his bullets hit her in the chest shows us he could aim).  In fact, just firing his weapon into the ground would have likely stopped everyone in the group including Bryant, in their tracks.

Furthermore, we don’t know which of the four bullets that Officer Reardon pumped rapid fire into his victim actually killed her, because she went down on the ground so quickly. She should not have been shot, but if he was going to shoot her, instead of firing off four rounds in a matter of no more than two seconds by my count, he should have fired once and waited to see if that shot had stopped her.  There was zero reason for firing the other three bullets.

It was troubling to see how Reardon, after having dispatched Bryant, stood there with his gun still pointed at her limp, prone body as another officer tried unsuccessfully to administer CPR, as if he thought she was somehow still a threat. Some other officer can be seen gently moving his/her hand up to Reardon’s gun to bring it down and calm him.  This was a man who had clearly lost control of his judgement, and some fellow officer had recognized that.

We need to know what the training is for Columbia police when it comes to shooting people. In fact we need to know what the training is for all police in this gun-obsessed country.

When I was a journalist working in Los Angeles, an LAPD street patrol cop I knew told me about the LAPD policy on gun use, and it was horrific:  If you fire your gun, shoot to kill, and empty it into the target.  My publishing that information led to the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division, the descendent of the department’s notorious old “Red Squad,” trying to find my source in the organization . We learned later, in the course of discovery as part of a major ACLU class-action lawsuit against the PDID, that the department had assigned an undercover PDID agent to infiltrate our alternative newspaper,  the L.A. Vanguard,  posing as a student wannabe journalist so she could volunteer to staff the phone while the reporters and editors took lunch. During her times alone in the office she revealed in her deposition that she had taken the opportunity to rifle through our files and rolodexes (this was the late 1970s) taking down names and numbers.  (Fortunately, I had wisely memorized the cop’s home number and never wrote it down.)

I keep hearing about people being killed by police who fire multiple shots at their victims as in this latest case.  Often more than one cop fires, pretty much guaranteeing that:  1) the target is really and truly dead and beyond saving and 2) that no cop can be blamed for the death because there’s no way to know which one of them killed the person.  I don’t think that, on the evidence,  that kind of murderous gun use policy has changed,  whether at the LAPD or anywhere else.  (Remember the murder of 23-year-old immigrant Amadou Diallo, stopped in 1999 as he was trying to enter hhis apartment building  in New York? He was shot 41 times by the four undercover and unidentified NYPD cops accosting him because they “thought his wallet was a gun.” )

The bottom line of this article is that kids should not be getting killed by cops. It’s also that even as we know that when a person is killed by police the victim is disproportionately a person of color being shot — usually by white police — it is even more disproportionately a black or brown victim than a white one when the victim is a kid and not an adult.  A Harvard study published last year found that persons of color are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police. But another study published that same year by the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, found that among children, black and brown kids were six times more likely to be killed by cops than were white kids.  That is police are twice as likely to kill non-white children in situations they are involved in as they are in interactions with non-white adults.

Any police killing of a child — whatever the excuse — is a tragedy. But this racial discrepancy in terms of which kids  are getting blown away by cops  is worse than a tragedy, it is an obscenity.

Think about what we’ve witnessed. Black 12-year-old child Tamir Rice, in Cleveland, was gunned down in 2014 by a white Cleveland cop seconds after two officers pulled up in a squad car .   On exiting the vehicle this cop immediately shot and killed Tamir. There was no time for a warning. The officer just got out of the passenger-side door and blasted the 12-year-old, who was holding, and not pointing, a toy air gun.

Think about 13-year-old Latino Adam Toledo, shot dead just weeks ago by a white Chicago cop while he had his empty hands raised in the air as demanded by the officer who had been chasing him.

And now think of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year old foster child who reportedly was the one who called 911 for help only to be gunned down by a responding white cop killed her with four bullets before even finding out who was actually attacking whom in a neighborhood mele.

Policing has gone completely off the rails when this kind of totally unjustified slaughter of kids, and especially non-white kids, becomes routinized as it clearly has. Equally off the rails is the response of all too many white Americans and white media commentators, who justify or simply accept this outrageous situation.

Sure there are too many guns, including in the hands of kids, white, brown and black. And sure police need to be careful and protect themselves on the job. But when cops just turn to their guns as the first response to an incident instead of trying to defuse and de-escalate it — especially when it involves children — it means we’re hiring the wrong people to be cops and are training them the wrong way.

Just for example, why did the Cleveland officers pull their car up to within feet of Tamir Rice if they really thought he was carrying a dangerous real pistol?  Why not 20-30 feet away, so they could talk to him from a save distance and tell him to put the gun down?  Why did the cop chase Adam Toledo, and after Adam, well lit even in the dark, had raised his hands, why didn’t the officer take the time before pulling the trigger, to look at those hands to see if there was a gun, which there clearly was not.  And why did Columbus officer Reardon not either come to the situation with his taser, instead of his pistol drawn? Why did he shoot Bryant, if the alleged reason was to protect the woman she was running towards, if that woman was behind her and right in the line of fire? And why did he fire four bullets at Bryant instead of just one to see if that stopped her, since she was carrying a knife, not a gun?

There are no acceptable answers to any of these questions.

All too often we hear police explain away their killing of often unarmed victims by saying they “feared for their lives” or were “afraid.”   But the truth is, that’s part of the job. Police have body armor, and are trained, or should be, in basic martial arts for disarming a person with a knife or a club. Especially when multiple police are on the scene, there should be little or no justification for killing someone armed with something like a knife. And firing a warning shot would have likely stopped Bryant in her tracks as well as shooting her did.

Besides in none of these three cases was the officer who killed a kid facing any threat at the time of the shooting.

Meanwhile, think of firefighters. You don’t hear often of them declining to run into a burning building that has people in it because they “feared” for their lives. They take that risk as part of the job — even the ones who are volunteers and  not paid firefighters. We need police officers who are similarly ready to accept the same kind of risks to avoid needless killing of people they confront on the job — especially kids. Police aren’t hired to protect themselves. They are supposed to be protecting the public, which includes suspects.

The fact that cops are armed doesn’t mean that they should use those weapons of death as a first option in every situation.

Whatever it takes, we need to end the racism in policing, and to end the killing of kids by police — especially the disproportionate killing of black and brown kids.

A good start would be to do away, nationally and at the state level, of the “qualified immunity” of police officers, that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute them successful for brutality, wrongful use of deadly force, and murder.

Another urgent need is a national registry of police officer dismissals, so that bad cops and people who shouldn’t be police officers who have been fired by one department cannot just get themselves hired on some other police force in another community.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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