When it rains, it pours, amirite? If the tension between the hopefulness and despair of the George Floyd murder trial weren’t enough to keep you awake at night, the demonic gods that be blessed us with the murder of Daunte Wright by mistaken tasering — OOPS! Those things gonna happen! What ya gonna do? Oh, well — and, now, we get police footage of a police officer shooting the unarmed surrendering 13 year-old Adam Toledo to death in a dark alleyway, ya know, just in case you could relax and feel like our worries about police brutality might could be over or something.
Why do these police shootings seem to happen in fits and starts. Suddenly, we seem to be inundated with mass shootings and police murder, again. Thanks Biden!
While each of these murders is different, they are depressingly the same: police over-react to the presence of a Black person in their midst and kill them. No matter the circumstances or causes, though, people always wonder how it could happen. How could Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes including a full four minutes after the poor bastard died unless he intended to kill him? How could Kim Potter mistake her pistol for a taser and end up shooting a man fleeing a misdemeanor warrant? How could an officer shoot an unarmed surrendering 13 year old?
The Adam Toledo Shooting
Here’s the set-up of the Adam Toledo shooting:
The Chicago PD are summoned to a specific place by reports of shots fired. They are called in to 911 and picked up by their ShotSpotter audio sensor network. Police show up and two people flee down a dark alley — it is like 2:00 AM after all. Police pursue on foot. The officer is yelling for Young Adam to drop his weapon and show him his hands. Adam runs to a fence and drops something over it, and then turns while raising his hands just as the officer asked. The officer shoots him in the chest.
The question is, should the officer have known that the boy was unarmed at that point?
Lucky for us, there are answers to these questions that point us in the direction of how we can best reform policing in America to — hopefully — prevent so many of these murders in the future. We’ll address two primary issues here: (1) the shoot-don’t shoot dilemma that police so often find themselves in and (2) the way that our brain plans and executes movement probably sealed this kid’s fate long before the shooting occurred.
To Shoot or Not to Shoot
The decision of whether to shoot a suspect or not has to be made in split second with little information at least little information that we are consciously aware of. One of the primary pieces of information is whether or not the suspect is armed and many tragic shootings have happened because the police officer has wrongly believed that the suspect was armed and many travesties of justice have occurred because police officers have lied about whether someone was armed in order to avoid accountability.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just the belief of whether the suspect is armed that enters into it. It is also the race or ethnicity of the suspect that influences the decision. We know this because of the Project Implicit Weapons IAT (You’ll have four choices on the initial page: register to take a social attitudes test, continue as a guest to take a test, take the health test, or complete the featured task. I recommend continuing as a guest. The next screen gives you a long list of implicit association tests to choose from, scan for the weapons test).
The idea behind this test is that you’ll see pictures of white and Black people in various settings in a variety of positions. Some of them will be holding a weapon and some of them will be holding something else. You decide whether you shoot them or not. You have one second per picture. Most people regardless of race end up shooting more unarmed Black people. Go figure.
This isn’t the first time we’ve referred readers to this test. Here are some of our conclusions and insights after taking it. See if you agree:
Let us know how you did in the comments!
- Cell phone and wallet manufacturers might could take a lesson from this game and make their products more easily and readily distinguishable from guns. I tell you, when the object is black, it is easy to confuse it with a gun.
- The people standing at the sides with an object in their outside hand were the hardest to figure out. It must be a peripheral vision thing.
- If the object is obscured by blending into something into the background, you’re likely to shoot, too. Anything that interferes with your ability to see the outline of the gun clearly, is likely to cause you to shoot an unarmed person: appearing on the periphery of the screen, holding the object even further towards the periphery (left, right, up, or down), blending with the background, two hands extended, two objects held.
- If it is this bloody hard to decide who to gun down in cold or hot blood when you are sitting in the comfort of wherever you are and not even being required to aim, then how much harder is it for an officer who is running down a dark alley at 2:00 AM after someone who may or may not have been involved in shooting several shots in the area?
Not only is it difficult to determine whether the person you are facing down is armed or not, we all have an uncomfortable propensity for shooting Black people! Even the police when they take the test! Even the Black police!
Planning Movement or Priming
Our big beautiful complex brains have several curious habits borne of necessity. With over 80 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between those neurons to coordinate, our brains are incredibly complex. Because our brain consumes 20% of the total energy used by our body, it is extremely costly to operate. We’ve had to come up with ways to conserve energy and coordinate all those firing neurons. Here’s how it pertains to movement and police shootings since you have to move to shoot someone.
Fine motor movement is controlled by our motor cortex shown in the illustration as being in dark pink. Anytime you’re moving this is one of the areas of the brain that is working. Moving is complex, so there’s lots of areas working together to make it happen, but this area is the one that controls the movement of all of the parts of the body that can be voluntarily moved. The lighter pink area in front of it is labeled the somatic motor association area or premotor cortex. This area is involved in PLANNING movement.
Since we carry out complex sequences of movements, we could not wait for each one to be laboriously plotted out and executed by the primary motor cortex, we need to line up the next sequence BEFORE the previous sequence has been completed. There is evidence that this occurs BEFORE our conscious mind realizes we’re going to be making that particular sequence of movements.
It doesn’t mean we will. Our conscious minds can intervene and direct our movements if need be, but before the cop actually pulled the trigger, the behavior had to be cued up in the premotor cortex. As discussed in the analysis of Duante Wright’s murder, cops are primed for violence, especially when they roll up on Black men. In this case, though, the cops were primed for violence by rolling up on a scene where multiple shots had been fired.
Their suspects were very possibly armed and dangerous. This cop was primed to shoot.
Assuming that the goal is to actually prevent the police murder of unarmed innocent PoC, then one of the solutions the murder of Adam Toledo points us towards is getting guns off of the street. We’ve got too many damned guns in our lives. The police have to assume everyone is armed. You’d be an idiot not to.
That we won’t reduce the number of guns in our society suggests that we’re still following the racist principle of hurting PoC first and worst with any given policy.
Another solution is to break down the implicit bias that police in particular have against Black people and PoC. Police cannot go into encounters with PoC assuming that they are all violent unpredictable criminals.
Motor cortex illustration
“File:Blausen 0102 Brain Motor&Sensory (flipped).png” by BruceBlaus. When using this image in external sources it can be cited as: Blausen.com staff (2014). ‘Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014’. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. is licensed under CC BY 3.0