Peter Casuccio, a Columbus, Ohio, police officer received a call reporting two young African-American teens for having a gun last week. He approached the pair in his car, exiting with his gun drawn, then calmly ordered them to stop, face him, and show him their hands.
The purported culprit, aged 11, removed an object from his waistband. In that moment, the officer believed it to be an real gun, but the officer decided not to shoot. A millisecond later, after the “gun” left the 11-year-old’s hands, it broke into pieces. It was a BB gun.
Here’s to hoping for more moments like these, moments in which an officer chooses not to default to deadly force. Instead of berating the boys, Officer Casuccio engaged them to impress upon them that not every officer would have paused before firing; instead of charging them with an offense, Casuccio made contact with a parent.
What’s the biggest barrier to seeing more encounters that end safely? Racial prejudice. Stereotypes about black boys and men affect even other black men. Bias kills in the context of police violence: Whether a shooting is legal or not may depend entirely on the officer’s perception of threat.
Scientists have come up with virtual trainings that push officers to look to other factors—like body language—and deemphasize race. That’s a start. Some departments also promote community policing. Contact between law enforcement officers and community members about whom they would otherwise hold negative stereotypes does help break down these biases.
No strategy is perfect. Even Cassucio’s positive exchange with the two boys exposes work left to do. The police officer’s language leaves something to be desired. “Boy,” when used to address an African-American male, is a racially charged term. The officer used “young man” to address the second youth, but, given its history, “boy” is a term to avoid in any circumstance.
As we work toward eliminating bias, departments should consider minimizing tactics involving force, especially deadly force, to reduce the casualties and fatalities of bias.