April 16, 2021


A Recipe for More Tragedy: The media's rush to judgment on the Adam Toledo shooting will come with a high cost. (Rafael A. Mangual, April 16, 2021, City Journal)

Last night, as I scrolled through my newsfeed on Facebook, I saw multiple posts referring to the shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by Chicago police officer Eric Stillman, video (warning: graphic) of which had just been released by the city's Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

All the posts linked to news stories with headlines emphasizing one detail: at the moment Toledo was struck by the officer's gunfire, his hands were raised and appeared to be empty. A sampling of the news headlines:

Slate: "Video Shows Chicago Police Shoot 13-Year-Old Adam Toledo With His Hands Up"

BuzzFeed News: "Video Shows 13-Year-Old Adam Toledo Had His Hands Up When A Police Officer Fatally Shot Him"

NBC 5 Chicago: "Attorney: Adam Toledo Did Not Have Gun In His Hand When He Was Shot By Chicago Police"

Mic: "13-year-old Adam Toledo put his hands up. Chicago police killed him anyway"

USA Today: "'We failed Adam': Body camera videos show 13-year-old Adam Toledo put hands up before fatal police shooting in Chicago" (the quote belongs to Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot)

The Associated Press: "Video: Chicago boy wasn't holding gun when shot by officer"

The implication from these headlines is clear: the boy was unarmed and raising his hands in surrender when he was shot--ergo, this was a bad shooting.

Those were just the news pieces. The commentary was more explicit. In The Hill, a piece entitled "Lawmakers demand justice for Adam Toledo: 'His hands were up. He was unarmed'" quotes, among many other Democratic lawmakers, California congresswoman Karen Bass, who tweeted, "Adam Toledo was 13 years old. Those responsible for taking the rest of his life away from him must be held accountable." A local community organizer told an audience on Democracy Now! that "There is no other way to describe what we saw in the video, as a cold-blooded murder." During a press conference, the attorney representing Toledo's family said, "If you're shooting an unarmed child with his hands in the air, it is an assassination." The Los Angeles Times quoted "neighbors" in Little Village, where the shooting took place, who referred to the shooting as "an execution."

New York City mayoral hopeful Andrew Yang distilled the relevant facts to just three: "He was 13. He was unarmed. His hands were up." Law professor Paul Butler (with whom I recently debated police reform) asked, on MSNBC, "Where is the bottom?"--suggesting that this shooting was clearly wrong. Butler went on to note that the officer fired his weapon "within 20 seconds of leaving his car." Similarly, MSNBC's Joy Reid said of the police in this case, "They didn't wait ten seconds before opening up on him like it was a drive-by." What Butler and Reid don't seem to understand is that it takes a lot less than ten seconds for an armed suspect to shoot a police officer.

Such inflammatory comments have become par for the course for modern media. A close analysis of the available video evidence also shows just how detached from reality these comments are.

The video is extremely difficult to watch. It is awful to watch the fear set in on Toledo's face as he seemed to realize he would die. Children are not supposed to die--especially not in a dark alley at 2:30 in the morning, with what officers on-scene described as a sucking chest wound.

The video clearly depicts a tragedy--but it is far from clear that it depicts a crime, let alone one motivated by racial animus.

While police bear responsibility for creating the narrative that folks tried fitting this incident into, it's not at all clear from the video that the officer should have done otherwise considering the tools we give them. 

Posted by at April 16, 2021 7:54 PM