The death of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Mexican American boy who was shot by a Chicago police officer, has sparked a new wave of national outrage over police violence. Many point to the inconsistencies in the officer's narrative and the efforts of public officials to conceal aspects of the case after police bodycam video was released to the public Thursday.
The Toledo case is the latest piece of a troubling pattern of police killings of children — especially Black and Latino children.
During a news conference April 5, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot emphasized the presence of a gun at the scene, implying that Adam may have pointed a gun at officers on the morning of March 29. Police officials bolstered this claim when they insisted that Adam was shot during an "armed confrontation" with an officer.
But the bodycam video poked holes in this narrative. It shows a terrified boy running away from a police officer. It also shows that Adam's hands were up in the air when the officer fired the shot that killed him.
The Toledo case is the latest piece of a troubling pattern of police killings of children — especially Black and Latino children. It echoes the tragic 2014 killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the 2010 police killing of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during an apartment raid in Detroit.
It's also the latest evidence of why calls to defund the police must be taken seriously. As many activists pointed out after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black and brown communities would be better served if funds were reallocated from police departments to other forms of public safety and to address social issues such as poverty. If that were the case, Adam Toledo might still be with us.
According to the Mapping Police Violence Project, more than 30 children have been killed by police since 2013. The project also shows that Chicago police have killed more children than any other local law enforcement agency in the country. Recent data from the Justice Department shows that 83 percent of incidents in which police used force against minors involved Black children and 14 percent involved Latino children.
Chicago police have killed more children than any other local law enforcement agency in the country.
These cases follow a grim pattern that has galvanized activists dating to the last century. In 1951, more than 100 Black activists and intellectuals signed a U.N. petition titled "We Charge Genocide" to bring international attention to the pattern of state-sanctioned racist violence in the U.S.
One of the cases they highlighted was the 1945 police killing of Harlem resident Wilbert Cohen, 14. Police officers claimed that the teenager had been caught peeping through a window on East 119th Street. Activists vehemently questioned the police account, including Wilbert's mother, Bertha Cohen.
"I'll never rest 'til they do something about this case," she told Chicago Defender reporters in 1946. "They will not shoot down other children in Harlem like they are rats instead of human beings." Despite the widespread efforts of activists in Harlem and across the country, the officer who shot Wilbert was never charged.
Two years later, another Black boy was killed by police officers, igniting mass protests in Detroit. In 1947, the boy, Beverly Lee, 13, was shot and killed by a Detroit police officer. On Oct. 12, 1947, Beverly's mother, Leah Lee, had sent her son out to run errands with a $5 bill. Police were called by a resident that afternoon with reports of a purse snatching. Police said Beverly was killed while running from officers who had stopped to question him. According to eyewitnesses, however, Beverly was walking with a friend when the officer approached in his squad car to demand that they stop walking. Within seconds, the officer fired his gun, killing the teenager. Officers later insisted that they did not know Beverly was a boy and that they assumed he was an adult when they approached him.
In 1947, the boy, Beverly Lee, 13, was shot and killed by a Detroit police officer.
A year later, Detroit police officers killed another Black teenager: high school student Leon Mosely, 15. Eyewitnesses reported that he was beaten by police and shot and killed as he staggered down the street. As activists were organizing to seek justice for Leon's parents, other Black and brown children lost their lives to police violence.
In 1948, teenager George Thomas was shot and killed by a police officer in Kosciusko, Mississippi, who claimed that he tried to escape after being arrested. In 1951, high school student Bobby Lee Joyner, 17, was shot and killed by police in La Grange, North Carolina. They claimed that he tried to attack them with a knife. The officers were charged but cleared by a grand jury.
Despite national efforts to reform the police, the violence toward Black and brown people continued. The 1976 police shooting of Randolph "Randy" Evans, 15, in Brooklyn, New York, revealed the continued vulnerability of Black children to state-sanctioned violence.
On Thanksgiving Day that year, Randy, a ninth-grader, was hanging out with friends in front of the Cypress Hills housing projects in East New York, Brooklyn. Officer Robert Torsney and his partner were in the area that afternoon, responding to a call about a man wielding a gun. Torsney encountered the group of teenagers, and after exchanging a few words with them, he was reported to have shot Randy in the head for no known reason. The senseless act of violence and the acquittal that followed a year later fueled a mass protest among Black residents.
On Christmas Day 1977, Randy's mother, Annie Evans Brannon, joined hundreds of residents calling for an economic boycott and demanding that the officer face charges for a civil rights violation. "As long as I have enough strength left," Brannon vowed, "I'm going to continue fighting this."
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True to her word, Brannon remained at the forefront of the local movement to seek justice for her family, organizing alongside religious and political leaders in the years that followed. Like so many other parents before her, Brannon never got legal justice for the tragic police killing of her son.
The long history of police violence against Black and brown children — along with the repeated efforts by police officers and public officials to conceal details of these cases — underscores the inherent problem of American policing. The tragic Toledo case is just the latest example.
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