The ugly truth of racism

By now, more than 60,000 people have watched a video showing Ohio police officer Peter Casuccio lecturing two young black boys about gun safety. He had stopped them due to a police report that one of the boys was in possession of a gun, but the officer discovered the 11-year old boy was carrying a BB gun. His discussion with the two boys was captured on his body camera.

Casuccio has received much praise for teaching the boys a “lesson” – one that might save their lives in future. But there was another lesson I was once again reminded of: how dire the situation for black people really is, in America and elsewhere. Casuccio himself acknowledged, “You can’t do that … in today’s world.” And he’s right.

The latest viral video in Columbus reminds me of the shooting dead of 12-year old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police in 2014 after it was reported he had a pistol. Tamir was shot twice in the torso. The pistol turned out to be a replica that didn’t have the orange safety feature marking it as a toy. I note from Casuccio’s video he didn’t have this luxury: the BB gun looked like a genuine firearm. 

In truth, those boys were lucky. As a black man, I know how very differently things could have turned out. Each year in the US, hundreds of black people are shot dead by the police. Recent cases of those killed whilst unarmed have sparked outrage yet there is no federal watchdog or official database for the deaths.

When it comes to race and policing in Britain, there are still many lessons to be learnt from the murder of Stephen Lawrence by racists in London in 1993. In some ways, we’ve gone backwards. Confidence in the police by black Britons is the lowest I’ve ever known it.

As a former police detective who has worked on one of the UK Home Office’s national firearms amnesties to get guns off our streets, I understand the dangers that replica and real firearms pose. In Britain, firearms were banned after the 1996 massacre of 16 school children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history.

Don’t get me wrong: officer Casuccio was right to have concern over the BB gun. But I wonder whether the police would have been called if the boys had been white? I have lost count of the number of calls to the police, as well as abuse and harassment captured on film in America against black people for just existing, driving, having a BBQ or trying to enter their own home.

I’m not going to come up with excuses for the boys playing with a BB gun in public, but the following two points are important. They were young boys and it was a BB gun, not a real weapon. There are no laws in Ohio that regulate BB guns or air rifles. After calling the 11-year-old “boy” – arguably racially-charged language – the officer discusses with him and the 13-year old about whether he is the type of “dude” that would shoot somebody.

The officer said he prided himself on being a “pretty bad hombre”. He then tells the boys, “Don’t make me”.

The officer says the last thing he wants to do is shoot an 11-year-old man, which is good – but the boy is not a man.

As a boy of colour once myself, I played with all kinds of toy guns. But times have changed and not just in America. Since 1990 there have been 69 fatal shootings by officers in England and Wales, according to the charity called Inquest, which looks at state-related deaths. In Britain, police don’t routinely carry guns; however, tasers are becoming the norm and are disproportionately used on black and brown people.

Police officers using firearms have to be highly skilled and of course there is an onus on parents to educate their children, but the truth remains that this is just another incident in a long list of police reprimanding boys of colour for things that are not illegal.

I watched the Ohio video with a white friend, and I asked his opinion about what should be done to prevent incidents like this when it came to black children. He didn’t have an answer. I doubt it’s something he has ever had to think about. Why would he?

Published by The Independent on 18 October 2018.