How do we reconcile warring images of a boy hugging a cop and a boy shot dead by a cop?

One paints the world the way we wish it would be. The second captures it as brown and black people know it to be

Published December 11, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/The Oregonian/Johnny Nguyen/Reuters)
(AP/The Oregonian/Johnny Nguyen/Reuters)

I can't hold both of these images in my head.

The first, richly colored as an oil painting, is a still photograph beautifully rendered: a policeman, white, tenderly hugging a boy, black, who is clutching him back. The top of the boy’s head comes to the man’s chin. The boy has tears streaming down his face. Is he upset? Moved? Relieved that the man is hugging, not hurting him?

The other, washed-out and high-contrast, is footage from a security camera, fuzzy as the other is sharp: a figure of a boy, black, moves in jerky stop-motion, wandering aimlessly back and forth. He raises his arm. What's in his hand? It's hard to tell. He goes to sit under a gazebo, then comes out and walks slowly forward. From the right side, a police car zooms into the frame, stopping directly in front of the boy. A cop pops out of the passenger side and the boy immediately drops. Another cop comes out the driver's side. The first cop is crouched behind the car, gun still in hand. The second circles around and seems to touch the prone boy with his foot before backing away.

Devonte Hart, the boy hugging, is 12 years old, the same age as Tamir Rice, the boy shot dead. Devonte’s photo from a Portland, Oregon, protest against the grand jury verdict on the shooting of Michael Brown, went viral on Tuesday, Nov. 25. Tamir had been shot the previous Saturday and had died on Sunday. On Wednesday, Nov. 26, Cleveland police released the video of Tamir’s death.

The first image is comforting, hopeful. The second is fraught, divisive. The first paints the world the way we wish it would be. The second captures it as most brown and black people know it to be.

Does this mean that the first photo is a lie? Not exactly. According to Jen Hart, one of Devonte’s two moms, and the policeman, Sgt. Bret Barnum of the Portland Police Department, they had a genuine moment of connection. Barnum described the encounter in an interview with CNN: “I’m going to call him over and do what I do, not as a police officer, but a human being ... We broke down those barriers and we talked about it, just as a person to a person.” Hart posted on her Facebook page, “[Barnum’s] response about [Devonte’s] concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), ‘Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’”

But the larger story it seems to tell is a lie. We wish that this heartwarming connection would signal a transformation, a break with a long history of white police officers harassing, stop-and-frisking, detaining, beating and killing African-American boys and men. Yet it’s unclear how much of a transformation the hug might have engendered in the Portland P.D., which has its own history of shooting an unarmed black man, or even in Sgt. Barnum himself. In the wake of the grand jury verdict in the death of Michael Brown, some Portland police officers had changed their Facebook profile pictures to badges wrapped in bracelets that read, “I am Darren Wilson.” Barnum and 30 other officers had “liked” one of the photos. (The police chief ordered the photos to be taken down and an investigation is in progress.) Barnum’s CNN interview is a carefully crafted piece of P.R. for police, during which he downplays race (“just as a person to a person”) and refers to it only in code (“at-risk youth”). His defense of policing as-is coupled with a refusal to engage with race head-on hardly indicates a new leaf in law enforcement.

It is, after all, easy to feel affection and kindness toward one crying African-American boy holding a sign reading “Free Hugs.” It is much harder to face and uproot deeply ingrained racial attitudes and structural biases, which are embedded within a profession and the culture at large, that demonize African-American males, including children. What will happen when Barnum approaches another black kid like Devonte, without a sign, at a park or on the street? Will the sergeant see him as a lovable kid, or as a potential “thug”?

What will it take to enact real change and make the hug photo a true image? By unpacking the circumstances that led to Tamir Rice’s death, we can see how far we still have to go.

I watch the footage from the security camera and try to find the moment when his death could have been avoided. How many steps between a bystander’s call to 911 and two gunshots that ended Tamir’s life? So many errors lie between those two points in time.

I look at the boy walking up and down the sidewalk pointing his toy gun and wonder, would I have called the cops? I might have. But two conditions had to exist before I would have made that call. First, the toy gun had to look real. Second, the possibility that a 12-year-old could possess an actual gun had to be real.

That both these conditions existed says something ugly about America.

Cleveland P.D. emphasized that the orange “safety cap” on Tamir’s Airsoft Colt 1911 replica had been removed, making the toy indistinguishable from a real gun. Even though replicas — with and without orange tips — have led to numerous police killings of adults and children (including 22-year-old John Crawford in August and 13-year-old Andy Lopez last year), the National Rifle Association, other gun rights groups, and the makers and vendors of such products have consistently blocked efforts at the federal and state levels to make replica guns more easily identifiable as toys, such as requiring the entire toy to be brightly colored, or to have a bright orange strip along its length. When a replica can be easily mistaken by armed police for the genuine article, it places the burden of proof that the “gun” is actually a toy upon the person holding it, usually a child. Tamir reached for his, but before he could pull it out far enough to show the tip, he was shot.

Although the 911 caller said “it’s probably a fake” twice, and added, “probably a juvenile, you know?” none of this information reached Cleveland P.D. Tracing the path of the original call to the transmission from the 911 center to the Cleveland P.D. dispatcher and then from the dispatcher to patrol cars is like a tragic game of telephone. Along the chain, this key information that might have saved Tamir’s life dropped out. Why did the message from the 911 center to the dispatcher leave out these crucial details? The cops heard only: “There’s supposed to be a male, sitting on the swings, pointing a gun at people. So he keeps pulling a gun out of his pants, and pointing it at people.”

Realistic-looking toy guns would be less of an issue if children never managed to get genuine guns into their hands. But on the contrary, a terrifying number of children in the United States have accessed guns and shot themselves and other people, whether by accident or intentionally. (It’s difficult to get exact information since the NRA has blocked research into gun violence.) Any child holding a toy gun that looks real can appear as a credible threat. But an African-American child holding a gun is certain to do so.

Interestingly, the dispatcher did not specify Tamir’s race even though the 911 operator asked the caller three times, “Is he black or white?” and the message from the 911 center to the dispatcher specified “black male.” In that area of the Cudell neighborhood, however, the police might have assumed that the male in question would be either black or Latino.

It seems logical that police receiving a Code 1 for a (presumed) adult man “pointing a gun at people” would anticipate a dangerous situation. Harder to understand is how police could mistake a 12-year-old boy for a man upon seeing him. In the photo of Devonte and Sgt. Barnum, what strikes me is how small Devonte looks tucked under the policeman’s chin. He is unquestionably a child. In photos from the funeral, Tamir seems equally unambiguous as a kid, not an adult. (The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office has refused to disclose Tamir’s height and weight.)

But when officer Tim Loehmann’s partner, Frank Garmback, called in the shooting, he described Tamir as a “black male, maybe 20.”  African-Americans are familiar with this kind of misperception, but it has also been documented. The American Psychological Association published research showing that whites generally perceive black children as older — an average of 4.5 years older — and less innocent than their white peers. These attitudes might also partially explain why juveniles are increasingly being tried and incarcerated as adults, a trend that disproportionately affects African-Americans.

So the factors going against Tamir Rice until the moment when the police cruiser pulled up to within 10 feet of him were these: a break in communication between the 911 caller and the cops, resulting in a loss of information that might have tempered the officers’ reactions; a toy gun that looked real because the gun lobby has stymied efforts to make clear the distinction between toys and weapons; and racial attitudes that can make African-American children appear older and more threatening than white ones.

When the Cleveland P.D. released the security camera footage, I was prepared to be shocked. The headlines of the news articles said as much. And yet I still could not believe how quickly Loehmann shot Tamir.

Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba stated that Loehmann had commanded Tamir three times to “show your hands” through the open door as the police car pulled up. In the video, this hardly seems possible. Tamir seems to be waiting, unalarmed, for the police car to pull up to him. Just before the door opens, he reaches to the Airsoft gun at his waist. In the next second, Loehmann bursts out of the passenger side and Tamir crumples. The time elapsed is described as “between 1.5 and 2 seconds.”

In the days that followed, two disturbing facts emerged. The first was that Loehmann had left a previous job as a policeman in Independence, Ohio, because he had been considered unfit for duty and was in the process of being fired. A 2012 internal memo detailed a long list of emotional problems and professional failings, including poor judgment during a live ammunition training and an inability to “follow simple directions.” Somehow, Cleveland P.D. did not receive this memo, nor any indication from the Independence P.D. human resources director that Loehmann was incompetent.

Secondly, on Dec. 4, Attorney General Eric Holder released the results of a Justice Department investigation into the Cleveland Police Department. The investigation took 18 months and covered almost 600 cases of use of force over three years. The conclusions led Holder to state that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force,” including deadly force, often violating the department’s own policies. The report stopped short, however, of investigating racism within the department, despite the fact that “many African-Americans reported that they believe CDP officers are verbally and physically aggressive towards them because of their race.”

Of course, these problems are specific, but not unique, to Cleveland P.D. Many, many other departments across the U.S. have long-standing issues with racial profiling, police brutality and excessive use of force.

By now we know the drill. We wait for the grand jury hearing, with a grim feeling that we will know the outcome.

Tamir Rice’s mother has said she wants Loehmann to be convicted. But even if he is, what will be done about all the other factors that contributed to Rice’s death? Will Cleveland P.D. improve communication between the 911 center and the dispatcher? Will it review its hiring policies to ensure that no other incompetent cops join the force? Will it evaluate the records of current officers and fire any bad cops? How will it address the culture of excessive force uncovered by the Justice Department? And most important, will it proactively examine both personal and institutional racial biases?

Although my own children are not black, I still look at these images foremost as a mother. There’s a moment right before the police cruiser pulls up, when Tamir leans against one of the pillars of the gazebo. In that moment, even as a blurred figure in a grainy video, he absolutely looks like the young boy he is, and it drives a blade into my heart every time I watch.

We have to claim them all as our children. It’s the only way it will stop.

By Anoosh Jorjorian

Anoosh Jorjorian is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She blogs at Arañ on the politics of parenting, including the topics of race and gun violence.

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