The history of police killing children in America

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A small memorial where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the Little Village neighborhood on April 15, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois. | Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images

Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo, and law enforcement’s long tradition of policing and brutalizing Black and brown children.

Just 25 minutes before the country took a collective sigh of relief as Derek Chauvin was declared guilty on all counts for the murder of George Floyd, another Black person was killed by police. This time, the victim was a child.

Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in the chest multiple times after he and several other officers responded to a call that Bryant herself placed. “My daughter dispatched Columbus police for protection, not to be a homicide today,” her mother, Paula Bryant, told 10TV News. “[Ma’Khia] promoted peace. And that’s something that I always want to be remembered” she said.

Bryant’s death is one more in a long list of Black and brown children who have died at the hands of police officers: Last week, 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson Jr. was shot in his high school bathroom when police responded to an emergency call. Last month, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by a police officer as he raised his hands in surrender.

Even though it was Ma’Khia’s name that protesters chanted the night she died and Toledo’s face on the signs that community members carried to his vigil, the grief and anger that is echoing across the country stems from years of violence by officers who take the lives of young people in seconds.

According to a study by researchers at the Children’s National Hospital, Black children are six times more likely to be fatally shot by police than white children, and between 2003 and 2018, about 93 percent of the children killed were boys. The odds for the adult population are similar — a Black person in America is three times more likely to be killed by police than a white person. So do officers fail to recognize the distinction between an adult man and a boy when they fire a gun, or do they just not care?

One answer to this can be found in a study published in 2014, which showed that Black children are often perceived as older than their white counterparts of the same age. The study reported that police officers “overestimated the age of Black and Latino child crime suspects. White children, on the other hand, were not subjected to such overestimations.” This racist tendency can lead an officer to see a nonwhite child as a threat capable of inflicting harm which seamlessly translates to a willingness to condemn nonwhite children or, in Toledo’s case, to kill them. Black and brown children are being cheated of the protection that society should offer them because officers in positions of power view them as adults.

To put this into context, I talked to Kristin Henning, the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law and author of the forthcoming book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth, to understand how Bryant’s and Toledo’s deaths speak to a long history of police brutality towards children.

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, touches on the history of policing children in America; why police officers see race, even in children, as a threat; and how to productively move forward from tragedy.

Maryam Gamar

The Chicago PD has killed more young people than any other local law enforcement agency in the country. The Columbus PD is a close second. How do these numbers contextualize Adam Toledo’s and Ma’Khia Bryant’s deaths?

Kristin Henning

We know that young people are more likely to experience police force than adults, and that police use of force is more common with Black and brown children than with white children, so you really have the double whammy of both age and race.

I suspect that the fact that use of force is more prevalent with young people has a lot to do with what we know about adolescent development. Young people are emotional, impulsive; they don’t think ahead to the long-term consequences, which creates these very rapid volatile situations. That is not to blame the victim at all. It is to say that police departments have to be trained to work effectively with young people and have an understanding of their behaviors. There’s research showing that police academies across the country spend less than 1 percent of their total training hours on youth-related issues. So there has to be some reform around that.

Maryam Gamar

Historically, how has America dealt with policing children, especially Black and brown children?

Kristin Henning

We can go all the way back from slavery until today and see a throughline. Obviously Black children were perceived to be the property of the white slave owner, so as a result, slave masters who thought that Black children had committed a crime could punish them without any oversight by the state whatsoever.

Then, between emancipation and 1899, children were tried and sentenced just like adults — there was no distinction between childhood and adulthood. This changed in the late 1800s when the progressive child savers emerged and began advocating for refuge homes and specialized juvenile courts. But it’s important to remember that the progressive reformers were not interested in rehabilitating Black children. Their mission was to transform European immigrant children into virtuous white citizens like themselves. Black, brown, and Indigenous children were segregated and trained to meet the labor needs of the day.

If we fast-forward to the 1990s, we saw a temporary uptick in juvenile crime among Black youth because of the crack epidemic and the easy access to guns. To be clear, that was a temporary uptick, but, again, conservative politicians and the media capitalized on that and exaggerated fears of Black children. The superpredator movement increased fear and anxiety surrounding Black children, and the reality is we have never recovered from that.

Today, we are in many ways back to the rehabilitative approach to children, but Black children and brown children are still the subject of fear and demonization because of this complicated history. So what we see now as a result is aggressive overpolicing and hyper-surveillance arising out of these unfounded and unfair perspectives of Black children.

Maryam Gamar

That child police victims are overwhelmingly Black and brown males mirrors the largest demographic of adult police victims. What does this say about the way police view race as a threat?

Kristin Henning

When police officers are given great discretion, there is a higher tendency to rely on their racial biases. They default to those stereotypes and assumptions that are deeply embedded in American society, namely the ones that link Blackness to criminality. There’s a body of implicit racial bias research showing that people, including police officers, are more likely to perceive an ambiguous behavior or facial expression as hostile, violent, or threatening when associated with a Black or brown face than when they associate those same behaviors with a white face.

So you add all of that together — fast-moving scene, high stress — and officers are likely to default to those threat assumptions.

Maryam Gamar

Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun. Adam Toledo dropped his gun before police opened fire. Police often excuse firing their weapons because they thought their target was a threat, even if it’s a child. What does “posing a threat,” to the point that opening fire on the individual in question is necessary, actually mean?

Kristin Henning

It’s entirely subjective. Officers are trained to look for things like a weapon, and at face value, that sounds like a rational conclusion to make: person with weapon. But the misperception of an ambiguous uncertain object as a weapon is more likely to happen with a person of color than it is with a white person. The other thing that is important is this notion of speed — Tamir Rice was shot within two or three seconds after officers approached the scene, what I would call an avoidable situation. Had those officers slowed the situation down, they may have realized that his toy gun did not in fact pose a threat, and things may have turned out differently.

Another thing to consider is how to properly dispel threats instead of immediately firing. It’s almost impossible for an adult to process a request and then comply in two to three seconds. So think about how much more difficult that would have been for a 12-year-old who is terrified of the police. It was the same thing with Adam Toledo. The officer yelled a command, Adam tried to comply, but the officer still fired without giving the child the necessary time to process.

Maryam Gamar

Talk to me about the long-term consequences that Black and brown children face as a result of the racism and brutality from police.

Kristin Henning

Black and brown youth experience extraordinary psychological and physical trauma because of policing. Research shows that Black and brown children who have experienced police stops and frisking and who live in communities that are heavily surveilled by police experience high rates of fear, anxiety, and depression. They become hyper-vigilant, and their distrust of officers transfers to other state actors like teachers.

This type of trauma occurs not only from being the direct target of police intrusion but also from hearing about it from friends and family and even observing it online. So watching George Floyd’s death, watching Tamir Rice, watching Adam Toledo getting shot by the police is just as traumatic as being there, and produces those same kinds of stress responses.

Research also shows that police encounters with youth are criminogenic, meaning that they increase crime instead of reducing crime. Some researchers have looked at Black and Hispanic young people who were the target of police stops and frisking, and they found that the more intrusive those stops were, the more likely the child was to engage in crime in the future.

And it’s not just psychological. Years of chronic stress from this kind of trauma can have a long-term impact on physical health. So ulcers, diabetes, and heart attacks have all been attributed to these chronic stressors that our Black and brown children are experiencing in light of contemporary policing practices.

Maryam Gamar

We’ve had this discussion every time a Black or brown child is killed — from Anthony J. Thompson last week to Ma’Khia Bryant yesterday. When will it be different?

Kristin Henning

It’s not going to be different until we radically reduce the footprint of police officers in the lives of Black and brown children. That means reducing stops and frisks, it means police-free schools, it means narrowing the role police officers have in society. We are engaging police with young people far more than necessary. Right now police officers are intervening in circumstances where a mental health counselor, a peer mediator, or a social worker would be so much better. So, for example, following the lead of a program called CAHOOTS based in Oregon, which is a mobile crisis unit that people can call to handle mental health crises instead of the police.

Second, we have to radically shift the narrative, to help people understand that Black children and brown children are children. They have the same features of adolescence, you know, experimenting with drugs, impulsivity, and resilience and rehabilitation are true for Black and brown children as they are for white children.

Third, until we shift that narrative, we have to have rules and regulations in place to narrow police discretion. We should prohibit use of force for young people. Most children can be redirected and safely managed without deadly force. We also don’t need tasers, we don’t need chokeholds, we don’t need body slams, and we don’t need pepper spray. And when force is absolutely necessary, it has to be non-deadly force.

The thing to remember is that we cannot police our way out of these situations. We cannot kill our way out of the situation. Even though Adam Toledo had a gun and Ma’Khia Bryant had a knife, they were still children, and the solution shouldn’t be to use force.

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