Yesterday, protestors gathered in Times Square and Grand Central Terminal to protest the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man choked to death by New York police — or, more specifically, protesting the fact that no charges were being brought against the officer responsible. Last week, we learned that the St. Louis police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, wasn't being indicted. Officers in Utah won't face charges for shooting Darrien Hunt, a black man killed while cosplaying with a decorative sword. Nor will the officers who killed John Crawford, shot for carrying a toy rifle. An investigation was still underway in the case of Tamir Rice, a black Cleveland 12-year-old who was also shot, in late November, for carrying a toy gun that an officer mistook for real.
One of the most cynical pieces of advice that's come out of this is that black parents need to teach their children to be afraid of the police, living under the constant danger that innocent mistakes will have fatal consequences. This advice is usually delivered sarcastically, or at least sadly. But according to the St. Louis County Police's helpful social media team, it's pretty much spot-on.
Earlier today, the official St. Louis County police department linked to one of its precinct's Facebook updates, a PSA about Tamir Rice titled "Kids will be Kids?" The rest of the piece is just as bad as its awkwardly casual title: it's a guide to making sure the police don't shoot your children to death. "This article is not about this, a boy losing his life, whether this was a justified shooting or, whether the cops acted too fast," says the piece. "This is about the Fenton Precinct making residents aware of a hot topic and learning from this incident."
In any other circumstance, there's no reason the police shouldn't ask parents to tell their children not to remove the orange safety caps that mark pellet guns as fake weapons, or say that they shouldn't shoot them within city limits. Or to warn them that police could end up getting called if it's not clear the gun is fake. In theory, even something like this could be okay:
If the type of gun is in question by the witness, the Police will respond as though it is a real gun until it can be confirmed one way or the other. ... The police will respond lights and sirens and come to a screeching halt in the area where your child is playing with the gun. Here are some tips to help your child respond appropriately. Do not run away. They need to no longer have the gun in their hands, throw it away from them. They need to comply with officers' instructions. ... Clear communication between your child and the police is essential.
But right now, "responding as though it is a real gun" (or sword) means almost immediate lethal force. When a friend of Tamir Rice's family asked why police didn't try to use a stun gun, he was told that "we're not trained to shoot people in the leg." And it's painfully dismissive of the larger social climate, where police officers are given wide latitude to use force, are unlikely to face any legal consequences for deadly mistakes, and seem disproportionately likely to kill black men with little or no provocation, whatever the cause. On top of everything, it's coming from one of the epicenters of the debate over police brutality.
The St. Louis County City of Fenton's police Facebook page is like a modern-day community newsletter, including information about charity drives and a photo of "two baby fawns growing up near our station." Unfortunately, it's being distributed to the entire world, and what might once have just been an inappropriate one-paragraph safety PSA ends up blaming children for not behaving perfectly under a terrible status quo.
Unsurprisingly, the tweet and Facebook post have been deleted, although you can see the latter below. Later in the afternoon, Chief of Police Jon Belmar issued an apology, saying that his office had not been made aware of the statement until after it was posted and had changed its social media policy to prevent future mistakes. "I apologize to Tamir's family and anyone who was offended by the post," he wrote. "The post conveyed the message that my officers respond to calls involving a child with a gun with indiscretion and little regard for life. I want to emphasize that my officers respond to calls with discernment, and have the highest regard for human life. We train officers to take all facts and circumstances into consideration when making decisions about using force."
On November 22nd 2014, a Cleveland Police Officer shot 12 year old Tamir Rice who had his hand on an Airsoft pistol. The Airsoft pistol had the orange warning tip removed. I do not know all the details of the story; I encourage you to research reliable resources and educated yourself about the incident. This article is not about this a boy losing his life, whether this was a justified shooting or, whether the cops acted too fast. This is about the Fenton Precinct making residents aware of a "hot" topic and learning from this incident so Fenton never loses a child’s life. If you or your children have an Airsoft or pellet gun please sit them down and talk to them about this tragedy. Your children should have rules for "toy" guns that mirror the rules of a real weapon. Pellet guns and Airsoft guns should not be allowed to be played with throughout the neighborhood, common grounds, or used to threaten or intimidate people. Pellet guns have no orange warning tip because they are considered weapons; Airsoft guns do have orange tip. Please inspect your child’s Airsoft gun to make sure the orange tip has not been altered or removed. These guns are very realistic.
Pellet gun laws are the same as any weapon in the City of Fenton. Children cannot carry a weapon and they cannot shoot this weapon within the city limits. Airsoft guns are considered toys, but city ordinance prohibits the "shooting of any projectile within the city limits". Warn them that these "toys" do look like real guns and could result in the police getting called on them. The police may get called to respond to "a child with a gun", "maybe a toy gun", it is important to know how officers are trained to respond. If the type of gun is in question by the witness, the Police will respond as though it is a real gun until it can be confirmed one way or the other. Remember if an Airsoft pistol is tucked in your pants like a holster then obviously the orange tip is no longer visible. The police will respond lights and sirens and come to a screeching halt in the area where your child is playing with the gun. Here are some tips to help your child respond appropriately. Do not run away. They need to no longer have the gun in their hands, throw it away from them. They need to comply with officers instructions. They may be ordered to lie down on the ground. Clear communication between your child and the police is essential. Police need to know that it is a toy gun; I do hope I am explaining a scenario that will never happen in our area.
So again, "kids will be kids", and your children will continue playing war in the common grounds. Share this with your children; tell this story to families that might need this information, and encourage your kids to talk to classmates about this. Working together we will keep our community a safe place.
Update December 4th, 2:55pm ET: Added statement from St. Louis County Police Department.