If Tamir Rice was a blonde-haired, hazel-eyed 12-year-old Caucasian child, he would likely still be alive today. His parents would have been called and he would have been admonished about playing with a BB gun in the middle of a city park. There would be no guns drawn and the responding police officers would have felt a bit annoyed about being called out over some kid playing in the park with a toy gun.
But Tamir Rice had the misfortune of being a black-haired, brown-eyed 12-year-old black child in a land where being black is considered a credible threat and where such threats are commonly terminated by law enforcement with extreme prejudice, even if you're just a child.
But it's not like most white Americans see black children as actual children:
In one experiment, a group of 60 police officers from a large urban police force were asked to assess the age of white, black and Latino children based on photographs. The officers were randomly assigned to be told that the children in the photographs were accused of either a misdemeanor or felony charge. The officers overestimate the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years, but they actually underestimated the age of white felony-suspected children by nearly a year.
Particularly relevant to the Tamir Rice case: "Black 13-year-olds were miscategorized as adults by police officers (average age error 4.59 years)."
Similar experiments involving 169 mostly white students found that "participants began to think of black children as significantly less innocent than other children at every age group, beginning at the age of 10." These experiments also showed that respondents were more likely to see the black children as "culpable" of a hypothetical felony compared with white and Latino children.
This research comports with other research done in the mid-2000s, which confronted police officers and civilians with photos of black and white armed and unarmed people, and asked them to press a "shoot" or "don't shoot" button for each image. Cops and civilians were more likely to press "shoot" for black images overall, but they were slower to press "don't shoot" for unarmed black images, and quicker to press "shoot" when an image showed an armed black man.
The APA researchers sum up their findings this way: "Our findings suggest that, although most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood, black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious." The Tamir Rice case illustrates that for some black children, those biases can play out with deadly consequences in just a fraction of a second.
Threats come in all shapes and sizes. Any "good guy with a gun" can tell you that. And yet:
A North Carolina woman was arrested on Christmas Eve after she was spotted with a BB gun in front of the police department and pointed it at officers and told them to shoot her.
Police received a 911 call about a woman in front of the police department with a gun around 7:30 p.m. Thursday. They found Elaine Rothenberg, 66, standing in front of a doorway at the police department with a gun raised and in a shooting stance.
Police said Rothenberg, who was from North Carolina but had been staying on Cliffside Drive in the city, yelled about hating cops and told officers “what are you doing, shoot me!” and “what are you, scared?” She raised the gun at officers and yelled “boom, boom, boom.”
After a brief standoff Rothenberg told officers the gun was fake and threw it to the ground, police said. She was taken into custody and police determined she had been holding a BB gun.
Rothenberg was charged with first-degree threatening, second-degree breach of peace, seven counts of reckless endangerment and interfering with police.
There was no split-second threat assessment needed. After all, she wasn't a 12-year-old black kid.