The Numbers Tell a Different Story About Police Killings of Minors

Exaggerated narratives could yield misguided policy responses—which would endanger many more kids.

Child on a bike with a police car in the background.
Alex Wroblewski

Deadly police force may be most traumatic to a community when officers kill a child. No matter the circumstances, we mourn both today’s loss and the decades of forgone tomorrows. The blow is sharper still when the child’s killing is captured on video and replayed again and again. Most recently, the police killings of Adam Toledo, 13, in Chicago in late March, and Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, last month in Columbus, Ohio, sparked protests and a social-media outcry. The death of Tamir Rice, killed in 2014 at age 12 in Cleveland, remains a touchstone of the Black Lives Matter movement.

All of these cases are tragedies. All raise the question of what, if anything, adults should have done to prevent them. But most news coverage of these killings lacks vital context to inform good answers. Many Americans are misinformed about the dimensions of this problem––and are prone to accept disturbing but false narratives, such as that police officers in America hunt and kill Black children, or radical remedies, such as defunding or abolishing the police in the name of protecting children. The wrong solutions might well result in the deaths of more children from causes other than police killings.

Police killings of minors are almost nonexistent in other liberal democracies. That should be America’s goal. To get there as quickly as possible, without the risk of catastrophic unintended consequences, the ongoing reckoning over police killings of children must be grounded in data. Such data weren’t always available, but can now inform all political factions about what is actually happening.

One of the best resources available is The Washington Post’s database of all fatal police shootings since the beginning of 2015. In that period, police have shot 6,241 people to death. Coverage decisions can give the impression that many were children. Per the Post, since 2015, police have fatally shot 112 minors—roughly 2 percent of all fatal police shootings.

Other data show that police shootings are not among the most frequent causes of death for children, even setting aside medical conditions such as cancer. In 2016, the most recent year for which I could find detailed statistics, 16 minors were shot and killed by police. These were among the other causes of death for people under 18:

  • Motor-vehicle crashes: 4,074
  • Gun homicides: 1,865
  • Suffocation suicides: 1,110
  • Gun suicides: 1,102
  • Drownings: 995
  • Drug overdoses or poisonings: 982
  • Fires or burns: 340
  • Gun accidents: 126

I bring this up not to minimize the importance of addressing police shootings—or the unique nature of the trauma they inflict—but to underscore the need to address them without increasing the number of deaths from other causes, such as gun homicides or motor-vehicle crashes, that could be affected by changes to policing. After the Ma’Khia Bryant killing, numerous influential Twitter accounts called for or amplified calls for abolishing the police. One such comment came from the activist and former Green Party vice-presidential nominee Rosa Clemente, who tweeted, “Police are the clear and present danger. They are killing our children … The President and Vice-President need to declare an emergency declaration and remove police from ALL BLACK AND BROWN communities now!!!”

The relationships among the size of a police force, police activity, police killings, and civilian murders are hotly contested. But suppose that removing the police from all Black and brown communities reduced police killings of minors by 100 percent, while the absence of police and the lack of crime investigation led to an increase in civilian murders of minors by just 5 percent—in my view a very conservative estimate. That would result, in a year such as 2016, in 16 fewer kids killed by police and 93 more kids shot to death by civilians. On net, 77 more children would die. If police killings were eliminated while civilian murders rose just 1 percent, more kids would still lose their life.

The average news consumer’s understanding of police killings of minors is likely incomplete in other ways as well. Media coverage of the issue often underplays an important factor: the presence of weapons or items that look like weapons. Among the 112 minors whom police have shot to death since 2015, according to the Post, 54 had guns and 17 had knives. Twelve had toy guns. Five were reported to have used a car as a weapon. Six had “other” weapons, and 15 were unarmed. (If a child had multiple weapons, one incident may be counted in more than one category. In some cases, the Post could not establish whether a weapon was present.) That a child was armed, or thought to be armed, does not necessarily justify a police shooting, but it typically affects how police respond and should shape our thinking about how to prevent future police killings.

For example, preventing children from gaining access to guns would likely prevent some police killings of children. Perhaps officers could also be trained to better identify toy guns in the field, and parents and children alike could be taught about the danger that toy guns will be mistaken for real ones. (In fact, in addition to the minors with toy weapons killed since 2015, more than 200 adults in that period were killed by police while possessing toy guns.)

Americans reach different judgments about how much attention the police killings of minors warrant from policy makers, and partisan and ideological divides obviously influence those judgments. But I suspect that regional differences in the frequency of these tragedies play a part too.

According to the Post database, the states with the first-, second-, and third-most fatal shootings of minors by police are the three most populous: Since 2015, 16 minors have been shot to death in California, 12 in Texas, and 10 in Florida. Seven have been killed in Illinois, six in Arizona, six in Ohio, and four each in Arkansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

The problem is not ubiquitous, however. The Post database indicates that, in many jurisdictions, no minors have been killed by police since 2015. That’s true in places with dense urban centers and large populations of Black Americans—including Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Rhode Island, as well as Washington, D.C. It’s also true in more rural states, such as Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

At what age should parents teach their kids about police killings? That question arose for me recently in my reporting on school curricula that teach kindergartners about them. When I asked whether that was too young, some educators argued that Black children need to be taught about police killings for their survival. Statistics show major racial disparities concerning which minors are shot and killed by police in the United States. Among such incidents since 2015, the Post reports that 42 of those killed were Black, 35 were white, 28 were Hispanic, and five were classified as “other.” (Gender is an even starker disparity: 103 were male, nine female.)

Still, the idea that 5- or 6-year-olds of any race or gender need to be taught about police killings for their own safety is unsupported by the data. Of the 112 minors shot and killed by police since 2015, nearly all were teenagers: 55 were 17-year-olds, 34 were 16-year-olds, 15 were 15-year-olds, three were 14-year-olds, and two were 13-year-olds. Some studies indicate that police officers are more likely to view Black teenagers as adults and Black males in general as more physically threatening than white males. Especially given such dynamics, talking with teens about how to act around police officers makes sense in my estimation, even though statistics suggest that they face dozens of more serious risks. Some parents—especially parents of color—simply want even young children to understand that racial bias exists in the world and that confrontations with police can quickly turn violent. Nevertheless, such lessons risk unnecessarily scaring children, especially very young children.

Three kids under 13 have been shot and killed by police since 2015. All were white, and the details of their cases offer little reason to think that being taught about police killings would have saved them—though teaching police to discharge their duties more responsibly may have done so. Ciara Meyer was 12 when a constable came to her home in Perry County, Pennsylvania, to serve an eviction notice to her father, who pointed a rifle at the constable. The constable opened fire, hitting the father, but the bullet passed through his arm and hit the little girl, killing her.

The other two kids were of kindergarten age. Kameron Prescott, 6, was playing with family members in Bexar County, Texas, when a fugitive facing credit-card-fraud charges ran into the trailer where the boy lived. Cops surrounded the home’s porch and shot at the fugitive as she exited. Multiple bullets pierced the home’s walls and hit the child inside. Jeremy Mardis, 6, was sitting in the passenger seat of a car driven by his father, who was fleeing from marshals in Marksville, Louisiana. The marshals opened fire, hitting and killing the boy. I know of zero cases in which lessons about police killings would have spared the life of a child at or near kindergarten age.

If many Americans overestimate the frequency with which police officers kill minors, or the relative risk that young children face from law enforcement, that doesn’t mean that police killings of minors are not a problem in the United States. These incidents are both statistically rare and a national embarrassment. In England and Wales, home to roughly 60 million people, police kill fewer than three people a year, on average. Multiply that by five or six to adjust for America’s population, and you get about the same number of minors that U.S. police kill each year.

Unfortunately, the conversation about police killings of minors suffers from a nearly exclusive focus on what the police could have done differently. Other factors in American life play a significant role in how these tragedies unfold. Given that so many of the American minors shot to death by police since 2015 possessed a gun, the relative lack of availability of guns to civilians in England and Wales helps explain why officers there are so much less likely to shoot. We need to study circumstances that inform but precede what happens when police arrive on the scene.

In keeping with my approach to reducing police killings generally, I favor numerous significant policing reforms, including a new federal agency that investigates every police killing with an eye toward prevention; more restrictive policies about the use of deadly force by officers; an end to no-knock raids and needless traffic stops; the abolition of qualified immunity for police officers; the deployment of dedicated social workers to help people who are homeless or have a mental illness; and more. All of these could save the lives of children and help restore confidence in policing.

Meanwhile, false or hyperbolic characterizations of police killings of minors carry a cost: They traumatize members of the public more than the facts justify, unfairly vilify cops, and mislead people about the best way forward.

For example, the author Mikel Jollett recently told his 299,000 Twitter followers, “I sometimes wonder what all these white people who say, ‘Wearing a mask is fascism,’ would think about police killing their children at will.” The U.S. has more than 650,000 full-time law-enforcement officers. Even granting license for hyperbole, “police killing their children at will” does not accurately describe a situation involving zero deaths in multiple states and fewer than 20 deaths a year nationally. The phrase does not reflect the reality that most of these incidents involved minors who were armed in some fashion.

Commenting on the Ma’Khia Bryant case on Twitter, Valerie Jarrett, the longtime senior aide to former President Barack Obama, tweeted, “A Black teenage girl named Ma’Khia Bryant was killed because a police officer immediately decided to shoot her multiple times in order to break up a knife fight. Demand accountability. Fight for justice.” The phrase knife fight conjures images of two equally armed combatants, not of one girl who appeared poised to stab an unarmed girl. We can mourn the tragedy of Bryant’s death without maligning a cop who had seconds to react and may have prevented the death of another Black teen. If we’re going to punish cops for preventing a potentially fatal attack—a scenario in which deadly force has always been accepted—we should inform them that we’ve altered our standards. But does a majority of any community favor such a change?

We must never become inured to the killing of children. And there is no shame in reacting to such incidents emotionally. But the most immediate and emotional reactions to the most upsetting tragedies should not dictate society’s response. The data afford a more complete picture of how best to protect children from being killed.