Cult of Compliance: Boy with Toy Gun Murdered by Police

Last week, a 13-year-old boy named Andy was walking home carrying a toy rifle. Police seem to have mistaken him for a grown man, called for him to drop the gun. As he turned towards the squad car (I think, based on reports), police fired on him. They hit him with seven bullets, according to initial reports. Then they handcuffed him. Then they started to perform first aid. He died.

I argue that this is a case of the cult of compliance. Here’s the link to my original post coining that term, but let me define it here. Can you help me improve it?

The cult of compliance – I argue that compliance has been elevated beyond other American values, such as our Fourth Amendment rights to due process. Authority figures from military leaders to beat cops and security guards, media covering authority figures and state violence, and even wide swathes of the American people believe that violence is the appropriate punishment for non-compliance.

The cult of compliance manifests most commonly in police-civilian interactions, but I argue that it has spread beyond those limited confines, such as in schools, in gender relations, in families, and anywhere else where one person believes they have formal authority over another.

We mostly observe the cult of compliance when something horrific happens, often involving a child or person with disabilities being treated as “non-compliant,” and tragedy ensuing. For every one of these cases that attracts media attention, there must be hundreds, perhaps thousands, that no one notices. The cult of compliance has become normal. And that’s why I write about it.

Last week’s killing is a good example, because it’s a little complicated.

Here’s Fox News‘ coverage: “Police investigating the shooting death of a 13-year-old boy carrying a replica assault rifle said the boy was told twice by sheriff’s deputies to drop the fake weapon and at one point, turned with the barrel of the gun and pointed it in their direction.”

So FOX acknowledges that this was a bad result, but the boy shouldn’t have pointed the fake gun at the cops, and the boy should have followed orders. If he had just complied, he’d have lived.

Meanwhile, TIME focuses on the fake gun.

The shooting is the latest in a long line of incidents of police shooting — and sometimes killing — people whom they have mistakenly thought to be armed with a real firearm. Last year, police fatally shot a Texas eight-grader who was carrying a pellet gun that resembled a black Glock. The year before, Miami police shot and killed a 57-year old man who had a realistic replica gun after getting 911 calls about the ostensible weapon. “This is not the first time,” says Karen Caves, spokeswoman for a California state senator who has pushed stricter regulations on imitation firearms. “It happens every year.”

In a press conference on Wednesday, Santa Rosa police investigating the incident emphasized that Lopez’ airsoft gun did not have the required orange marker and public information officer Paul Henry says that the front portion had been removed. Unzipping two cases, an officer showed reporters a real AK 47-style rifle and the imitation that the teenager was carrying. “The firearm and airsoft rifle appeared remarkably similar, with matching black banana clips and brown stocks,” wrote the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “Yet in the light of the [building where the conference was held] the model Lopez carried was clearly plastic with a transparent center section.”

I found more nuanced reporting from the Christian Science Monitor.

One officer, apparently perceiving that the tip of the gun was being raised in his direction as Andy turned, opened fire. Given that the entire encounter took place in the span of 10 seconds, Andy’s friends and family are raising questions about whether overly jumpy police officers acted too rashly. Police say officers could not distinguish a toy gun that shot plastic pellets from a real one at the 30-foot range, and reacted in line with training.

I suspect that they did act in line with training. And that’s the problem.

According to Sonoma County police officials investigating the shooting, the two officers – one a veteran, one a rookie – spotted a person on Tuesday afternoon wearing a hoodie and holding what appeared to be an assault rifle in his left hand. They stopped the squad car and took cover behind its doors, police said.

The officers told investigators that the person appeared to raise the barrel toward the officers as he turned around. Only after approaching the body did the officers realize the truth – that it wasn’t a threatening gunman but a boy with a toy rifle.

“The deputy’s mind-set was that he was fearful that he was going to be shot,” said Santa Rosa police Lt. Paul Henry.

We might ask why the deputy was fearful, because again, I believe it. In that context, I note the racial and clothing component. Andy Lopez seems to have been a Latino boy, dressed in a hoodie, playing with a toy gun. I cannot prove that race and clothing shaped the outcome of this event, but I’m suspicious.

There’s more, though. From The Daily Mail (which revels in U.S. violence cases). First a deputy shot Lopez, perhaps in two bursts, then approached him as he bled out.

After ordering Lopez to move away from the rifle, deputies approached the unresponsive teen as he lay on the ground and handcuffed him before administering first aid and calling for medical assistance, O’Leary said.

He’s literally dying and can’t obey, so before they help him, they handcuff him.

So here’s the question: Are we willing to ask our police to take on a little more risk in exchange for not having kids with fake guns shot. I guess I am willing to make that exchange. Bruce Schneier, a friend of mine, writes about our fear of risk as a cultural moment as his response to some of these police incidents.

We need to relearn how to recognize the trade-offs that come from risk management, especially risk from our fellow human beings. We need to relearn how to accept risk, and even embrace it, as essential to human progress and our free society.

And he’s not wrong. We do need to make the trade-off of slightly more risk to police in exchange for more safety for the rest of us. But I still feel that risk isn’t the only issue here.

It’s compliance.

The police tell you to do something, you do it instantly, or they will respond with force.

Until this changes, we’ll keep seeing these events in the news when something tragic happens. What we won’t see are the cases where the victim isn’t so sympathetic. The cult of compliance rolls on.

5 Replies to “Cult of Compliance: Boy with Toy Gun Murdered by Police”

  1. CheshireKate says:

    Interesting – a friend of mine just posted on facebook about his police interaction. My first response upon reading it was OMG he is so lucky he didn't get shot. Here is his description – Went out to my van with a headlamp on after dark to look for something. As I am looking around in the vehicle, it's light up like the sun. I pop my head up and the spotlight follows. The following conversation ensues: unknown spotlight holder: "What are you doing?" Me: "That is really not your concern, who are you?" Spotlight "Turn off your head lamp so I can see you". Me: "After you", to which I continued to search in my vehicle. They backed up, trying to get a better angle to blind me perhaps, but finally just drove off. It was not until they were driving off that I truly knew they were police – In a sense he was lucky that the police reacted more the way we would WANT them to react instead of the way they did to a toy gun.

  2. Lee says:

    David, I am skeptical that it is unusual for nothing bad to have happened there. I think it is quite normal and occurs often, just not often enough. I also think the likelihood depends a lot on the training and culture of the police force in question. I think the St Paul police would give you that result most of the time; the Minneapolis police would give you an uglier result most of the time.

    1. David Perry says:

      Fair enough. It's always hard to ID the dog that doesn't bark. I tried to get information on happy encounters between police and disabled people and struck out. I'll revisit when my book is done in a few months and do more serious investigation.

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