‘What Cops Do’

Goldie Taylor—Why Can’t My Black Son Have a Toy Gun?

Ask the moms of Dedric Colvin and Tamir Rice: Playing while black shouldn’t be such an unfairly dangerous game.

Angel Terry/Alamy

“It’s not real, it’s not real!” the boy reportedly shouted.

Within seconds of him saying that, a witness says that a plainclothes Baltimore city police officer shot 14-year-old Dedric Colvin twice—in the shoulder and the leg. The Daisy spring-air pellet gun in his possession, designed by the manufacturer to look like Beretta 9 mm automatic pistol, was recovered at the scene and bagged as evidence. He was hospitalized with what police call “non-life threatening injuries.”

Dedric is black, and there are those who will invariably question his behavior when confronted by police. And, still others who will defend his right to the very same toys that countless white children play with every day.

African Americans want law enforcement to see their children through the same lens of innocence.

Daisy is “the most recognized brand of air guns,” says the company website. Their products can be purchased online or at any Walmart store in the country. I know, because my son owned one. In fact, Joshua saved his allowance, birthday, and holiday gift money to purchase at least three pellet guns when he was a teenager.

The rules were simple: Stay close to home, never point it at any living thing, leave the orange safety tip in place, and surrender it to police officers on demand.

Once, a neighbor saw him playing with a spring-powered rifle in the woods behind our house. We’d only lived in the suburban subdivision for a few weeks, but I imagine that being the only black family in an otherwise all-white enclave of houses did not help matters.

Joshua was on his way home when the squad cars roared down our street, he told me. Their commands were firm and direct. They told him to drop the “weapon,” which still had its orange safety tip, and demanded to see his hands. Meanwhile, one officer kept his hand on his holstered service revolver as he spoke.

“It’s not real,” he assured them.

“Where do you live? Are your parents home?” one of responding officers asked, examining the toy.

“No, sir,” my son said, tipping his head toward our yard. “My mom is at work,” he said.

“Do yourself a favor and keep this in the house.”

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It was 2005 and my son was 14—the same age as Dedric—and we are black.

His father and I never directly purchased toy guns for any of our children, nor did we specifically ban them. We were confident then, as I am now, that our children would act responsibility whether or not we were present. It was, admittedly, naïve of me to believe that that would be enough.

I was not home that day and, looking back, the mere thought of what could have happened to my son is terrifying. What if he had cut and run, like Dedric reportedly did? Or what if, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, he had done nothing at all?

The shooting incident in Baltimore comes some 17 months after Tamir was fatally shot by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann—a rookie with a bad training record. Tamir, who was playing with an air-soft gun in a snowy park near a recreational center, was killed within seconds of Loehmann’s appearance. He never had a chance to respond to a command, if one was indeed ever given. Tamir was struck once in the chest and died the following day.

Likewise, Dedric was shot near the corner of East Baltimore and Aisquith Streets, in an area lined with dilapidated commercial structures, a church, and a recreational center. Commissioner Kevin Davis said two detectives in an unmarked car spotted the teenager carrying what they thought was a gun. Davis says the officers identified themselves and that Dedric ran.

A witness, a man only identified as Bryan, said police officers ordered the boy to drop the gun. “[He] turned towards them but he wasn’t turning the gun towards them and I’m positive I heard him say, ‘It’s not real,’” he told WBAL-TV.

The teenager motioned the pellet gun upward, Bryan explained, and never pointed the toy toward the officers.

However, Commissioner Davis—who has been on the job less than a year—contends that his officers did nothing wrong. “Those police officers had no way of knowing it was not an actual firearm,” he said at a press conference. “It looks like a real firearm,” he said of the Daisy PowerLine Model 340.

“They got out of a car and engaged with a person who looked like he had a gun in his hand,” the police commissioner said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what cops do.”

As the city marks the one-year anniversary of the funeral for Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody ignited nationwide protests, the shooting is stoking new tensions over old wounds. Trust is hard to come by for cops in a city where too many live under the heavy toll of mass incarceration, amid community complaints of over policing, racial profiling, corruption, and police violence.

In that context, and in light of an eyewitness account, many will have a difficult time swallowing the official story from City Hall.

“When he ran—and the foot chase was a good 150 or so yards, he rounded a corner, kept running,” Commissioner Davis continued. “He had every opportunity to drop the gun, had every opportunity to stop, put his hands in the air, comply with the instructions of the police officers.”

The blame, he said, belonged to Dedric.

But, Davis did not stop there. He also appeared to blame Dedric’s mother, who he says knew her son left home with the toy. While Dedric’s behavior is something that will be scrutinized, possession of a toy gun is not illegal. Daisy has been selling their products on the open market for 130 years. Yet, Davis seemed to be getting at something deeper, questioning why a mother who lives in a notoriously tough neighborhood would allow her son to take a pellet gun outside—as if where he lives determines which toys she should let him play with.

Yolanda Young, who learned about the shooting from her son Alvin, pleaded to know if Dedric was alive. She told a reporter from The Baltimore Sun that when she attempted to call the Johns Hopkins hospital, she was handcuffed, taken in for questioning and, at one point, placed in a holding cell. She begged the officers to take her to the hospital to see her son.

According to The Baltimore Sun, Young said she didn’t know where Dedric got the BB gun. “He gets good grades. My son is a good kid,” she told the reporter. “I know he was scared. They shot him while he was fleeing.”

Commissioner Davis never said what prompted the shooting, only that Dedric ran away and officers thought the gun was real. During the press conference, he refused to say if the detectives felt threatened or that the teen was either point the pellet gun at them. He called the toy a “dead-on ringer” for the real thing, a “replica.”

Maybe running was a mistake that could have cost Dedric his life. But, Tamir never ran. He was shot as he sat on a park bench under a gazebo. Luckily, Dedric will get the chance to say what happened to him in a civil or criminal proceeding.

John Crawford III, a 22-year-old Ohio man, will never have that chance. He was in a Dayton-area Walmart store in August of 2014 when he picked up an air rifle from a shelf. Another shopper called 911 to report a man with a gun. Police officers responded immediately, confronted Crawford and killed him. Investigators claim Crawford, who was talking on his cell phone when they encountered him, did not respond to commands to drop the toy. Video evidence, however, shows that the young father was shot within one second and that only the word “down” can be heard.

It did not matter that Crawford and Tamir lived in Ohio, an open-carry state. In Maryland, which also permits open-carry with registration, it is unclear that possession of a gun constitutes probable cause for a stop.

What is abundantly clear is that young black men and boys are, all too often, viewed as an inherent risk. They wake up as suspects, in the minds of some police officers, by virtue of the very skin that they were born in.

Maybe that’s why Dedric ran.