The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police have fatally shot 22 children under age 16 since 2015

Jacob Perea, 7, left and Juan Perea, 9, held signs at an April 6 news conference following the death of Adam Toledo, 13, who was shot by a Chicago Police officer March 29. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar, File)
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The three youngest children killed by police since 2015 according to Washington Post data were all shot accidentally.

Jeremy Mardis was 6 years old when police opened fire on his father, striking Jeremy while he sat in a car. Kameron Prescott, also 6, was playing in his room at home when a suspect being chased by police barged into his house. He was shot twice when police fired on the suspect and died on the way to the hospital. Ciara Meyer was 12 when she was accidentally killed by a law enforcement official serving her father with an eviction notice.

Like Kameron and Jeremy, Ciara had the tragic misfortune of being present at a violent encounter between police and an adult. Of the 19 other children under the age of 16 shot and killed by police in the past six years, most were the police officers’ intended targets. That includes 13-year-old Adam Toledo, shot to death by Chicago police in March.

On Thursday, the city of Chicago released body-cam footage of Adam’s death. It shows a brief foot chase down an alley before the boy stops near a gap in a fence. The pursuing officer tells him to put up his hands, which the boy does, turning to face the officer. The officer appears to believe that the boy is holding a gun and orders him to drop the weapon before firing a single shot. Adam died where he fell.

While Adam wasn’t armed, eight of the 22 children under the age of 16 who were fatally shot by police since 2015 were armed with guns when they were shot, according to Post data. Another four were holding other kinds of weapons, like knives. Three were holding toy guns, like 13-year-old Tyre King, fatally shot in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016. One was driving a car, and the others, including the three youngest, weren’t armed at all.

Adam Toledo’s situation, perhaps like any such situation, is complex. Police were at the scene after the city’s automated gunshot-tracking system alerted them. A man who was with Adam, Ruben Roman, fired the initial shots that drew law enforcement. The police officer had reason to believe that someone there was armed.

But it’s also hard not to wonder why the situation couldn’t have been defused without Adam being shot. This was a child, a 13-year-old. A trained adult police officer couldn’t have detained the boy without firing his weapon?

The number of young people shot to death by police since 2015 is relatively small, so we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from the pool. It is worth noting, however, that these kids are mostly non-White. (Adam was Hispanic.) Police shooting victims are disproportionately non-White in general, with about 51 percent of all of those fatally shot by police since 2015 being White. Among those under the age of 16, only about a quarter were White.

Researchers have documented the ways in which non-White children are often seen as being older than they are. A study published in 2014 found that police officers, “despite being better versed in dealing with criminal suspects, overestimated the age of Black and Latino child crime suspects. White children, on the other hand, were not subjected to such overestimations.” The chart at left below shows the measured overestimations in years, depending on race and the type of crime offered in the hypothetical example. (The chart at right shows perceptions of culpability depending on race.)

We need to be cautious about applying research like that above to specific situations like the shootings being discussed. But the fact research shows how police officers might overestimate the age of non-White suspects suggests that officers might perceive more significant threats in the moment than really exist.

That’s particularly true when coupled with a 2012 study that demonstrated how holding a firearm makes a person more likely to assume that those they encounter are also armed.

“While several factors including one’s beliefs and expectations have been previously identified, the current results indicate that the mere act of wielding a firearm raises the likelihood that nonthreatening objects will be perceived as threats,” the researchers wrote. “This bias is also detrimental for the armed officers and soldiers who act violently after mistakenly thinking they saw a gun.”

An understatement, certainly, but it also underplays the detriment to those they incorrectly perceive as being armed.

Adam Toledo’s death was unquestionably a tragedy. It is also now part of a turgid, boiling debate over police use of force, one that overlaps with America’s sharp political divide. There’s an earnest debate to be had about how to prevent deaths like Adam’s — and Jeremy’s and Ciara’s. But it’s often hard to separate that from bad-faith or uninformed efforts to squeeze their deaths into a political narrative.